Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer Jon Meacham on the evolution of Abraham Lincoln's moral principles and political leadership -- and what the era of Lincoln can teach us about the state of our democracy today.
Guest Host: Indira Lakshmanan
Six years ago, “Downton Abbey” became a surprise hit not only in Britain and the United States, but around the world. The upstairs-downstairs drama followed the exploits of the Crawley family and their butlers, ladies’ maids and footmen. One of the most watched programs in PBS history, the show drew viewers in with lavish costumes, scandalous love affairs and the dry wit of Maggie Smith’s Dowager Countess. Story lines probed the turbulent era between the two world wars in Britain, when the aristocracy lost power and social norms shifted dramatically. The last episode airs Sunday, March 6 on Masterpiece on PBS at 9p.m. ET. As the series comes to an end, we look back at the appeal of “Downton Abbey” and the history that inspired it.
- Louis Bayard Author, "Roosevelt's Beast." His other books include "The Pale Blue Eye," "The School of Night" and "Mr. Timothy." He teaches fiction writing at The George Washington University.
- Sophie Gilbert Senior editor, The Atlantic
- Mo Moulton Lecturer in history and literature, Harvard University; author of "Ireland and the Irish in Interwar England"; author of the blog "Watching Downton Abbey with an Historian" on The Toast
MS. INDIRA LAKSHMANANThanks for joining us. I'm Indira Lakshmanan sitting in for Diane Rehm. It all began with the sinking of the Titanic, which sent the fictional aristocratic family, the Crawleys, scrambling for a new heir. Six years later, "Downton Abbey" wraps up its run as a the highest rated program in Public Television history. It has aired in 200 countries and territories, from Russia to the Middle East. Along the way, babies were born and spouses died. Sex scandals were hushed up. A world war was fought. And the Abbey's upstairs and downstairs denizens coped with changing times, including the introduction of the telephone and radio and the evolving role of women.
MS. INDIRA LAKSHMANANJoining me here in the Washington studio to talk about the allure of Downton Abbey and the history it dramatized, Sophie Gilbert, cultural editor of The Atlantic and author Louis Bayard, who writes "Downton Abbey" recaps for The New York Times. And from a studio at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., Mo Moulton. She writes the blog, "Watching Downton Abbey with an Historian." Welcome to all of you.
MR. LOUIS BAYARDGreat to be here.
MS. SOPHIE GILBERTThank you.
MS. MO MOULTONThank you.
LAKSHMANANThanks for joining me. And we would also love to hear from you, our listeners, who have followed this show. And I know there are a legion of you. What drew you in? Which character did you love or hate? Which historical moments came alive for you on screen or seemed absurdly anachronistic or soapy? You can call in at 1-800-433-8850 or send us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also send us a message on Facebook or a tweet to @drshow.
LAKSHMANANSo, many of the best scenes in "Downton Abbey" happen around this dining table, heaving with silver and porcelain, the family lavishly dressed and the butler hovering nearby, catching every word that's uttered and repeating it downstairs, like this classic moment from season one.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALEWhat will you do with your time?
UNIDENTIFIED MALEI've got a job in Ripon. I said I'll start tomorrow.
UNIDENTIFIED MALEA job? You do know I mean to involve you in the running of the estate.
UNIDENTIFIED MALEDon't be worried. There are plenty of hours in the day. And of course I'll have the weekend.
FEMALEWhat is a weekend?
LAKSHMANANI love her, Maggie Smith, Countess Grantham. Go ahead, Sophie, remind us who's at the table and what are they talking about?
GILBERTSo this is a scene in the first season when Lord Grantham is meeting his new heir, Matthew Crawley. Lord Grantham's previous heir died on the Titanic, as you mentioned earlier. Matthew is solidly middle class, unlike the aristocratic Grantham family, the Crawley family. And he's a lawyer. So obviously he has a job. And he announces his intention to work during the week and then return to Downton at the weekend. So obviously the dowager countess is somewhat bemused by this modern concept of the weekend.
LAKSHMANANAnd of people who have to work. Well, I'm just going to own this upfront. I'm a huge fan of "Downton." I resisted watching it because I'm not a soap opera person. But the acting and the storylines drew me in. Lou, why do you think so many Americans are drawn to "Downton Abbey"? What is the appeal of a fusty old British aristocratic lifestyle in 21st century post-colonial democracy?
BAYARDThat's a nice way to phrase it all. I think there are a couple of things at work. One, the show is a thing of beauty. It is an artwork in itself. It has beautifully dressed people in beautiful rooms and beautiful homes. You can get all of your soft-core house porn fix met by -- just by one episode. So there's that element to it. There's a pure fantasy level. I think that right now we are in such a culture of rancor and hostility and argument. I mean, it crops up everywhere in reality TV, presidential debates. Mr. Trump is certainly adding to that. So I think there's something very soothing about looking back at a time when manners were the glue to everything, when people observed customs and ritual.
BAYARDAnd there was, at least on the surface, this serenity, this calm. I think that's very pleasing to us now because we feel that our own culture at some level is being coarsened.
LAKSHMANANWell, you sound like Mr. Carson, the butler for a moment now.
LAKSHMANANBut I have to say, I mean, it also reifies everything that we've rebelled against. You've written about this, this enforced caste system of the aristocracy. And that's not what we're about.
BAYARDIt is an irony, isn't it, that Americans, who broke away from England, should embrace shows that do in fact, as you say, reify the system. This is a show in which the Tories are the heroes. Lord Grantham is the hero of the show. He's this incredibly benevolent aristocrat, who has only the best interests of his servants at heart and his family, cares nothing but about their welfare. That is somewhat of a fantasy. We know that in real life it was not a good system for the people, especially on the lower end of it. But we're willing to accept for an hour a week that, yes, things worked out really well and everybody was happy and content, whether they were in the kitchen or upstairs in the drawing room.
LAKSHMANANIt's fantasy. All right, Mo, as an historian of this period in the U.K. and Ireland, did you immediately tune into this show or were you a late adopter?
MOULTONI was a late adopter. I was reluctant to watch it at first because it seemed too perfectly pitched to all the things I'm interested in, so I was a bit of a contrarian. I think it was the character of Tom Branson that really drew me in. I was writing a book on the Anglo-Irish War at that time and the idea that there was an Irish revolutionary chauffeur who was also a socialist who was wooing the daughter of the house, that was the storyline that really drew me in and made me curious to watch the show and see how it was going to grapple with all of these sort of political ramifications.
LAKSHMANANAnd you've written about how your friends finally lured you over one Sunday night with offers of whiskey cocktails and sticky toffee pudding I think.
MOULTONThat's exactly right. Yeah.
LAKSHMANANWell, I mean, this show has a diverse set of American fans, from ordinary PBS viewers, like your friends with whiskey cocktails and sticky toffee pudding, to really celebrities, like Michele Obama, Katy Perry, Harrison Ford. And it's inspired all these affectionate parodies by "The Simpsons," Stephen Colbert, even "Sesame Street." Sophie, you're British. Have you been surprised by the popularity of this show on this side of the pond?
GILBERTI am, a little bit. I mean, in some ways I'm less surprised by its popularity here than I am by its popularity in England, because it seems like a show that's really tailor made for Americans. I mean, like Lou said, it's this gorgeous, sumptuous presentation of an idealized period in English history. And it sort of reinforces many of the ideas that I think people have about the English aristocracy in a sort of rosy, rose-tinted way. But it -- and I think, also, there's a degree of anglophilia here, with so many of PBS's shows that certainly "Downton" is playing to.
LAKSHMANANWell, you know, a comment has just come in to us from Steve on Twitter saying, is "Downton Abbey" as much of a hit in the U.K. as it is in the U.S.?
GILBERTIt's huge. I mean, I think it has -- I believe in its first season it had 9 or 10 million viewers per episode. I'm not sure -- totally sure of the recent ratings. But it's certainly a big cultural event every Sunday night. People do get together and they watch it.
LAKSHMANANWell I read that it's the highest rated show in the history not only of PBS in the U.S., but also of ITV...
LAKSHMANAN...in the U.K. So I guess that's our answer. So, Mo, how historically accurate is the story to social norms. You mentioned Tom Branson, the chauffeur. Would Sybil, one of the daughters of, you know, Lord and Lady Grantham have ever actually married a chauffeur? And would a noble family like their have welcomed him in as one of their own? And, you know, would Edith and Mary really have managed to get away with their escapades?
MOULTONOh, those are all great questions. I think that Sybil was absolutely a character who was actively pushing against the social norms of her family. So, you know, thinking of -- she was the first person to wear -- the first woman to wear pants in her family. You know, she was a committed suffragette. So the idea that she would be interested in a sort of cross-class liaison, I think, is completely realistic.
MOULTONLess realistic is the idea of how thoroughly the Crawley family sort of absorbed Tom Branson after the marriage and the idea that he was sort of completely assimilated into the family, even after Sybil's death, I think, underscores Lou's point about this being a fantasy of a family that's able to sort of overcome class divisions and overcome social divisions through essential kindness, which I think ends up obscuring real prejudice that existed at the time and exists to this day.
MOULTONAnd, but the characters of Mary and Edith, I think, are great examples of women who were really genuinely taking advantage of broadening opportunities for women at this time. You know, women got -- women over 30 got the vote in 1918. In 1919, women were given access to the professions and were able to start serving as jurors. And so I think that...
LAKSHMANANYou're talking about in the U.K.
MOULTONIn the U.K., yeah, exactly. And two years later, women got the vote in the United States, in 1920. So I think Mary and Edith, you know, are taking advantage of genuine new opportunities for women to explore their lives, professionally and sexually and personally.
LAKSHMANANWell you're right that, you know, the youngest sister, Sybil, was the most revolutionary in her thinking. And maybe that's why I liked her the most. But it feels as if each of the Crawley sisters evolved over the course of the show into a feminist prototype of one type or another. Let's listen to another clip from the show.
FEMALEWhen are you going to appoint your new editor?
MALEWhy can't it be you?
FEMALEWell, I'd like to be sort of a co-editor. But no man will put up with that, so I'm going to try to find a woman.
FEMALEA woman editor?
FEMALEI applaud you.
FEMALEWell of course you do. And presumably, we may now look forward to women field marshals and a woman pope.
LAKSHMANANWell, we haven't gotten the woman pope yet. But the field marshals, we're getting there. So, Sophie, you know, tell us quickly, before the break, a little bit about Edith and what was happening here, the changes underway for women.
GILBERTI really love how we've seen Edith's evolution in this season, at least in her professional life. Her personal life, obviously, has had a lot of ups and downs. But she seems to have really flourished in her role as publisher of this magazine and seems to realize that since the magazine is appealing to a female audience, it might help to have a female editor. She sort of -- she took over when her, I want to say partner -- they weren't quite married but they were engaged I believe -- died in Germany and she inherited his magazine, which is sort of a society magazine playing to the upper classes. And I think she had a spat earlier this season with the editor who was male and he was very difficult and was sort of harrumphing a lot. And...
LAKSHMANANAnd resentful of having a female publisher his boss.
GILBERTVery, yeah, very much resentful of having a woman tell him what to do. And she showed no bones about getting rid of him an appointing a woman. So more props to her.
LAKSHMANANAll right. And obviously had to take over as a sort of co-editor herself. Well, we are going to take a short break. But when we come back, we'll be going to your comments and your questions all about our farewell to "Downton Abbey," looking back at the history. Was it real? Was it artificial? Why do we love it so much? Stay with us.
LAKSHMANANWelcome back. I'm Indira Lakshmanan sitting in for Diane Rehm. This hour we are saying farewell to the most popular show on public television ever, "Downton Abbey," which is going to be airing its final episode this Sunday, March 6, at 9:00 p.m. Eastern Time on Masterpiece PBS.
LAKSHMANANIn studio with me, Louis Bayard, author of several books, including "Roosevelt's Beast" and "Mr. Timothy." He teaches fiction writing at George Washington University and writes the "Downton Abbey" recaps for The New York Times. And Sophie Gilbert, senior editor of the culture section for The Atlantic magazine. And joining us via ISDN from Harvard, Mo Moulton, a lecturer in history and literature at Harvard University and author of "Ireland and the Irish in Interwar England." She writes the blog, "Watching Downton Abbey with an Historian" for The Toast.
LAKSHMANANSo right before the break, we were talking about Edith and the sort of evolution that she showed, sort of taking over as a female publisher and co-editor and then hiring a female editor. What about Mary, the imperious beauty who has so polarized fans who love her or hate her and can't agree if she's a relic of another time or a feminist. Let's listen to this clip.
FEMALEYou're still out of pocket 50 quid. I must repay it.
MALENo need. It was money well spent.
MALETo learn that my eldest child is a child no more and quite tough enough to run this estate. Indeed she could clearly run the kingdom should she be called upon to do so.
LAKSHMANANAll right, Lou. Remind us what was happening there.
BAYARDMary had just been blackmailed by a chambermaid from the Liverpool Hotel where she had spent a scandalous week having premarital sex with Tony Gillingham, Lord Gillingham. It was kind of a trial run, which didn't actually end in a marriage as it turned out. So it was basically a week of fun for Mary.
LAKSHMANANA trial run to see if she wanted to marry Lord Gillingham.
LAKSHMANANAnd sort of this...
BAYARDAnd she kind of decided, not so much. I think the sex was okay. The brain wasn't there for her.
BAYARDBut -- so she was being blackmailed by this chambermaid. And she was ready to go ahead and be exposed and take on the scandal. So I think that's why her father was so pleased with her. I mean, it was about her...
LAKSHMANANThat she was showing backbone.
BAYARDShe was showing some backbone.
LAKSHMANANBut it's not only that. He says, you're tough enough to run this estate, indeed the kingdom. And it strikes me, is she an Edwardian English reincarnation of Scarlett O'Hara, who would do anything to save Tara, her family plantation? And Mary, likewise, would do anything to save Downton, her family's estate. Even going so far as to learn accounting and management it seems.
BAYARDYeah. I think Scarlett O'Hara is a really good analogy there. Because in both cases, you have an anti-heroine. Mary, you know, by virtue of being the oldest daughter, by virtue of being the -- sort of the heir to the estate -- at least her son is the heir to the estate -- should be the romantic heroine. But she does so many vile things. In the same way that Scarlett O'Hara did, that you can't think of her in the same warm and cuddly way you think of a traditional romantic heroine. And yet, at the same time, she's fascinating. You never know kind of what she's going to do next. Will it be for good? Will it be for ill?
BAYARDShe just did -- reached her lowest point probably by torpedoing her sister's marriage to Bertie Pelham, by revealing that Edith's daughter was...
LAKSHMANANThat Edith had an out-of-wedlock daughter.
BAYARDYeah, out-of-wedlock daughter. So that was probably her nastiest work of art yet.
LAKSHMANANYeah. All right. Well, you know, we have a comment here from Zondra on Twitter, who says, who would want to watch this if it were completely realistic? The realities of racism, classism and all are too well known by the subjects. Now, you know, she makes a point. This is also about escapist fund, about, you know, people getting one hour to not think about the terrible things going on in our society.
LAKSHMANANBut, Mo, I have been struck by how the series has really focused on the slow decline of the British aristocracy. So even though it is, on the one hand, sort of this fun, escapist confection and a treat, it's also showing us that the Crawley's money went away, that it's harder to afford a great house after World War I. Tell us a bit about the historical things that underpin all this.
MOULTONMm-hmm. Sure. I mean, World War I is really the great shock to the English aristocracy in this time. The combination of inflation, new taxes that were imposed, especially on the rich, especially the death duties that come up a lot in this show, death duties on estates where they're being passed on to the next generation. All of those things combine to really undermine the financial stability of the British aristocracy. And even the conservatives who were in power for most of the 1920s and 1930s are more concerned with sort of seeing off the socialist threat from labor than trying to support a continued aristocracy. So they were sort of democratizing in their own way.
MOULTONAnd so, you know, the Crawleys' are really genuinely facing a crisis of how to maintain this large estate that they can't realistically sell off. Nobody wants to buy this big house. They could maybe sell it for the price of the land that it's situated on, but not for more. So they're sort of the classic house-poor aristocrats. And they just don't have the kind of stable income from their inherited wealth that their grandfathers and grandmothers would have had in the 19th century.
LAKSHMANANYou're written about how, to pay for World War I, European governments went into debt, abandoned the gold standard, inflation became a way of life. And that, after the war, those same governments were paying the debts by devaluing currency and imposing big taxes on the wealthy in a variety of ways. So, I mean, that's also part of it. Although they don't get into that detail in the series, isn't that what we're seeing when we see one neighbor selling out and auctioning off the heirlooms, another one wandering the empty halls of this sort of once grand home in a delusion.
MOULTONYeah. That's exactly right. That's exactly what's going on. I think that, you know, they don't show Lord Grantham sort of pouring over his account statements from his accountant. But behind the scenes he must be doing that and realizing that he just doesn't have the money to pay for a household full of servants. I mean, that's also what's driving the really sad storyline with Thomas Barrow right now, the idea that they just don't have the cash to pay the salaries for all of these servants. And so, you know, Barrow is looking for employment elsewhere and getting these job offers of combined chauffeur and head butler and, you know, chief bottle washer.
MOULTONBecause they're trying to shrink household as a way to save money and keep going in some sense.
LAKSHMANANWell, there are many other sad storylines that relate to Thomas and we'll get to those. But I do think that this point about the disappearing way of life, I mean, I'm struck that the greatest advocate of it on the show is probably the butler, Carson. Let's listen to a clip where he's uncomfortable that he's been asked to chair the village war memorial instead of Lord Grantham.
FEMALEHave you made your decision about the memorial?
MALEOh, not yet. I'm not comfortable being placed ahead of his lordship. You should have seen his face, Mrs. Hughes. He felt very let down.
FEMALEIt's for the committee to make the choice and they've chosen you.
MALEAnd the country has chosen the Labor government, so people don't always get it right.
FEMALEWhat are you afraid of?
MALEI feel a shaking of the ground I stand on, that everything I believe in will be tested and held up for ridicule over the next few years.
FEMALEMr. Carson, they've been testing the system since the Romans left.
MALEOh, I suppose that's true. The nature of life is not permanence but flux.
FEMALEJust so. Even if it does sound faintly disgusting.
LAKSHMANANThe shaking of the ground, everything being in flux. Why do you think Julian Fellowes, the show's creator, made the choice to make Carson the butler into this defender of the decaying system?
GILBERTI think in some sense it sort of unites us in a way to have both the upper and the working classes believe in the same thing and to sort of support each other and have this symbiotic relationship where they sort of believe very much in the system and accept that their place in it is solid and unchanging. I mean, Carson, in so many ways, is a more steady and stolid defender of the Grantham family honor than even Bill Grantham is. It's sort of astonishing to see. I mean, I think in a recent episode, Mrs. Hughes invited him to sit down on a couch in the living room when the family was away and Carson was sort of making a face and saying how inappropriate it seemed to him.
GILBERTSo, I -- but I think, in some ways, having the servants express that sentiment even more than the family does kind of makes this idea that it wasn't just the upper class that was kind of enforcing this way of life upon the world.
LAKSHMANANAnd Julian Fellowes is himself a member of the British aristocracy…
LAKSHMANAN...and I think a big Tory.
BAYARDYes. He's a conservative member of the House of Lords. And I think you can tell that this is a Tory show. As I said before, the hero is the chief Tory, Lord Grantham. Carson is -- could not talk more of a Tory line than Winston Churchill. You know, he's that far to the right. And in fact what happens is, when they bring in some delegate from the left, they tend to be quite annoying.
BAYARDThere was a character recently, Sarah Bunting, an infamous character.
LAKSHMANANShe was awful.
BAYARDShe was awful. People couldn't wait for her to go because she was portrayed as so shrill and tiresome and preachy that...
LAKSHMANANShe was a potential love interest for the widowed Tom...
BAYARDFor Tom Branson.
LAKSHMANAN...Branson, the chauffeur.
BAYARDYeah. But there wasn't any spark there. And they finally kind of ushered her off, to everybody's relief. She was expressing valid viewpoints but the way it was couched was so irritating. And the same really with Daisy, who was the one servant downstairs who kind of expresses any resentment at her provisionary life. She is also such...
BAYARD...shrill and irritating that you just want to get rid of her.
LAKSHMANANBut they've set them up as straw men, perhaps, for...
BAYARDExactly. I think they have...
LAKSHMANAN...for their own political views.
BAYARD... I don't know if it's conscious or unconscious. But it's clearly that -- this is clearly the show of Tory.
GILBERTThe same with the maid, too, who came in to blackmail Mary earlier this season. She was sort of very much like, your lot's going down and our lot's coming up. But she was obnoxious about it.
GILBERTAnd definitely you can tell whether some (word?) of dealing for those lives.
LAKSHMANANAll right. Well, we've gotten several tweets from listeners, including Lucinda and Marian, who are saying that they feel like the show was anachronistic, because they think that people upstairs and downstairs were accepting or defending Thomas' homosexuality. Thomas is the under-butler we were talking about earlier, Barrow. But, I don't know. I mean my impression is that he's gay. His sexuality has been a subplot in the show from the beginning but that it has not really been accepted. Let's listen to another clip from the show.
MALEI went to London for what they call electro-therapy and the pills and injections were supposed to continue the process.
MALEThe purpose of which was?
MALETo change me. To make me more like other people, other men.
LAKSHMANANWow. So it shows him suffering. He really does suffer. And we've even seen him attempt to commit suicide. What do you think about his evolution as a character, Sophie? And is it realistic, the way he's treated by others for his homosexuality?
GILBERTSo I think Thomas who is someone who at the beginning of the show is very much a stereotypical villain in the kind of soap opera mold. And over time, you've seen more of his personality come to light and you sort of, really, we've sympathized with him, as viewers, along the way. Especially in his struggles to sort of, like he said, change himself. So he's taken on more of a tragic subplot. And I think in a recent episode you saw him and Lady Mary compare themselves, how they have this inability to not say things that are cruel or unfair to other people and how they know that it's wrong but they can't help it at the time.
GILBERTSo in terms of whether -- how Thomas would have been treated, I mean it -- I think this is something where class, almost, is another issue. Because my understanding is that homosexuality was sort of not tolerated but it was much more common among the upper classes or much more acceptable than it was among the working classes at the time. I have no idea if that's actually true. But that having watched the Alan Turing movie recently, it seems like there are efforts to kind of -- to change Thomas -- that they were certainly common at the time.
LAKSHMANANYou're referring to the movie "Enigma" about Alan Turing the famous British code master who then committed suicide because of how he was treated. I'm Indira Lakshmanan and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Mo, you're a historian of that era. How realistic is the shows depiction of homosexuality of the era?
MOULTONWell, I think that it captures certainly Thomas Barrow's suffering and his sense of isolation. And that, I think, is really realistic. I think when you describe him as a victim of social homophobia, that is correct. One of the things that strikes me as strange about the show is the way that it shows a kind of -- it shows his suffering without quite showing what's causing it. So many of the characters that he interacts with, for instance Mrs. Hughes saying, in a recent episode, you just haven't met the right person yet. That's what you need. You know? Or Lord Carson -- or, excuse me -- Lord Grantham saying, well, you know, we all got up to that in boarding school. We know what goes on.
MOULTONI think he's existing at this interesting transitional moment in the history of sexuality between a kind of thinking about homosexuality as a sort of homosexual act. So that, for instance, working-class men might engage in what was called rough trade and have sex with other men for money, but not think of themselves as gay people. And in the early 20th century, that's when it starts to shift towards being an identity. And so you see Barrow grappling with that and the idea of changing who he essentially is.
MOULTONI think that what's missing is the queer subcultures that he might have been able to be a part of, you know? There's a real missed opportunity I think to show places like -- there were cafes and nightclubs in London -- the Café Royale or the Running Horse -- where he could have gone and, you know, been seen for who he was and really welcomed as who he was, you know? And I think that, you know, for a show that can grapple with, you know, Pamuke's -- the Turkish diplomat's death in Lady Mary's bedroom in the first season, I think that they certainly could have shown that world and the really thriving kind of subculture that existed in the '20s and '30s, especially in London, but also in some of the smaller cities.
MOULTONSo I think that it's a very sort of narrow slice of Barrow's suffering. It leaves out cool things and also really terrible things.
BAYARDYeah. They're very skittish about showing Barrow having any kind of sexual congress. I think he's maybe had a kiss -- a couple of kisses spaced out over six years. But, yeah, what Mo has said is true. And part of me just wants to say, run to London, Thomas. Your people are waiting for you there. Don't waste your life in Yorkshire. Come on.
LAKSHMANANBut he's part of service.
LAKSHMANANThat was the sort of career path and...
BAYARDThat was. And they took great pride in service careers, a lot of them, yes.
LAKSHMANANAll right. All right, let's go to the phones. Joselyn from Houston, Texas, you're on the air.
JOSELYNThank you so much for taking my call. As a woman of color, I took a little guff from my friends about my obsession with "Downton Abbey." But I love the show. And I was really very pleasantly surprised to see the character entre of the jazz singer. I thought it was really authentic. So many people of color fled to Europe so that they could have some measure of freedom and success. And my other comment is simply my favorite character. Who's favorite character cannot be the Dowager Countess?
JOSELYNGet out of here. Best line of the season, when we loose the dogs to walk, we must go where they take us. I love the show.
LAKSHMANANThank you so much, Joselyn. You know, she brings up, Sophie, how the show introduced a black character, this jazz singer who was a love interest for Rose, until Mary came in and kind of broke them up. You know, is the show's portrayal of blacks in this culture -- a very limited portrayal -- accurate?
GILBERTI mean, I think it was limited for -- by virtue of the fact that sort of social associations between the white aristocracy and possibly black people would have been very limited at that time. But I think they did it very well. It was nice to see Lady Rose, who in some ways has been a rebel throughout the season, kind of taking this rebelliousness to say that she really doesn't care who she socializes with or hangs out with and she's mostly interested in people first. I thought that was a nice way to do it.
LAKSHMANANAnd she does also, ultimately, marry a Jewish aristocrat.
LAKSHMANANSo that's a way that they sort of neatly had her first with a black character, then with a Jewish character. A sort of limited form of diversity in the show but a way that they did introduce it both through Lady Rose. All right. We're going to take a short break. When we come back, more of your calls and your questions in our farewell hour to "Downton Abbey." Stay with us.
LAKSHMANANWelcome back. I'm Indira Lakshmanan sitting in for Diane Rehm. And this hour we are having a lot of fun doing our own little farewell to "Downtown Abbey," the PBS series that ends Sunday night. We're Louis Bayard, author of several books and a teacher of fiction writing at George Washington University. He writes the "Downtown Abbey," recaps for The New York Times. Sophie Gilbert, senior editor of the culture section for the Atlantic Magazine. And Mo Moulton, a lecturer in history and literature at Harvard and author of the blog, "Watching Downtown Abbey With an Historian," for The Toast.
LAKSHMANANSo right before the break, we were talking about how Lady Rose is used as a character who is very open-minded, a rebel and sort of brings in, introduces the one black character in the show, the main Jewish character whom she marries, a Jewish aristocrat. You know the diversity issue is a really interesting one because we do end up seeing a lot of these different characters. But how well integrated they are, you know, I wonder about the historical accuracy.
LAKSHMANANWe have an email from Larry in Washington, D.C. who says, "The most unlikely thing for me about the assimilation of Tom Branson into the household, is the complete silence about what should've been the largest sticking point, the fact that he was a Catholic. I imagine the family would sooner accept a socialist than a Catholic." Mo, you write all about Ireland and England in that period. Tell us, is Larry right?
MOULTONYes. I mean, there's a brief debate when Baby Sybbie is born about where she's going to be baptized, because Tom wants her to baptized a Catholic. And there's a sort of really strange moment where Lord Grantham says, well, I don't want my grandchild to dig with the left foot, which is this, you know, sort of old fashioned, slightly bigoted away of referring to Catholics. So, yeah, I would agree with the person who sent that email, that Tom's religion is likely to be a source of conflict in a way that is not portrayed in the show. And it's not clear how serious he is about that religion? I mean, perhaps he, you know, got Baby Sybbie baptized and just doesn't care about it anymore. And so his assimilation is actually into the Protestant culture as well.
MOULTONIt is true at that time that there were what were called Anglo Catholics and that the Catholic church in England was divided between a sort of really aristocratic upper sort of echelon of English people who had been Catholics since before the reformation, and then the majority working class Irish parishioners. And so, you know, it's remotely possible that they could've seen Tom in that context of sort of the respectable English Catholics. Although that's, you know, extrapolating quite far beyond the script of the show obviously.
LAKSHMANANAll right. Well, Mo, I mean, this show -- this is not the only aspect of history. The show is from the start, basically ripped from the headlines, real historical events. The sinking of the Titanic, the Spanish flu, Women's Suffrage Movement, even the emergence in the 1920s of Hitler's brown shirts. What do you think -- how effective has it been at ripping subplots from the historical headlines?
MOULTONI think it's been very effective at it. And it's one of the things I enjoy most about the show. I think that, you know, occasionally it foreshadows, which you can't really do in history, right? I mean, you don't know what's going to happen to next. That's sort of the nature of history. And so there's a subplot about blackmailing the Prince of Wales, I think, about his indiscretions that really heavily foreshadows his ultimate abdication in 1936 and his decision to -- his abdication of the throne and his decision to marry the American divorcee, Wallis Simpson. So sometimes that's a little bit silly, that sort of thing, I think.
MOULTONBut more broadly I think that the show actually does a really nice job of bringing in real historical characters, sometimes in ways that illuminate little known things about them. I really enjoyed the cameo of Neville Chamberlain...
MOULTON...who's -- you know, if he's known at all now, he's known as...
LAKSHMANANThe then British prime minister later who...
LAKSHMANAN...in later years was British prime minister and is sort of blamed for having appeased the Nazis and allowed the invasion of Poland to happen.
MOULTONExactly. That's almost the only thing that we know about him now, is that he was the prime minister in 1937 through '39 and appeased Hitler. They capture this much earlier moment in this life when he was this sort of the middle of the road conservative, minister of health, who was actually really interested in, you know, how to improve the quality of life for workers. So I think it's kind of neat how it gets into that level of detail at times.
LAKSHMANANWell, you know, you bring up this notion of health and improving the quality of life. Let's talk about income and equality. Because the contrast is really strong between the upstairs and the downstairs in "Downtown Abbey." How does inequality then compare to today? Mo.
MOULTONI mean, I would say that one of the things that is really striking about "Downtown Abbey" is the way that it's set at kind of the beginning of a moment when we were moving towards greater equality. And it's at the very, very cusp of that. And there's this mid twentieth century moment of considerable equality and really robust welfare systems, social safety nets, especially in Western Europe, including the U.K. And so I think that in a way Downtown is one of the reasons why it's so compelling is that it mirrors to us -- we've started to in the 21st century to move away from that, to have increasing inequality.
MOULTONAnd so we're at sort of these bookended moments, you know, Downtown's at the beginning and we're at the end of the social safety nets and greater equality. And so I think that -- I mean, getting back to Lou's point, I think one of the reasons why it's such a compelling show is that it provides a really reassuring image of what an unequal society can look like, and sort of reassures us. It doesn't matter. We don't need the national health service or insurance, you know, we'll just pay for the eye surgery that the servants need.
BAYARDFor Mrs. (word?) , yeah.
LAKSHMANANAnd yet I've read that the richest take home a higher share of national income in America today than the aristocrats and the super rich did in 1920s England. And Peter Lindert, this economics professor at U.C. Davis has written about how Britain's Downtown Abbey was less unequal than the U.S. today.
LAKSHMANANWhich is sort of an interesting side point. But, you know, you talk about people of the upstairs and the downstairs becoming more aware of the differences between them, and also at the time this decline of the upper class that is forcing them to do things like open up their home to outsiders for tourism, in this case for the purposes of a charity event. Let's listen to this clip.
FEMALEAnd if you have a chance to see the private rooms of the king and queen, would you give six pence for that?
MALEBut what would it tell me, they sleep in a bed, they eat at a table? So do I.
MALEI suppose I always wonder whether someone else is having a better time than I am.
MALEBut that's what's so dangerous. You think they must be having a better time, then you want them not to have a better time. The next thing you know, there's a guillotine in Trafalgar Square.
FEMALEEver the optimist.
FEMALEI think all these houses should be open to the public. What gives them the right to keep people out?
MALEThe law of property, which is the cornerstone of any civilization worthy of the name.
LAKSHMANANAll right. So we go from...
BAYARDGood old Carson.
LAKSHMANAN...houses being open, right, to the public for a little tour to the guillotine in Trafalgar Square...
LAKSHMANAN...in the words of the butler Carson.
BAYARDWell, that was a fascinating episode. It was actually my favorite episode of the whole season because it does that foreshadowing that Mo was talking about. This is, in fact, the future of places like Downtown Abbey. They are going to become tourist attractions. That is how they are going to save themselves. They don't know it yet. They kind of hate the idea of people rummaging through their stuff. It's actually fascinating how little they know about their own house. They can't even answer the most basic questions about the artwork. But this is what their future looks like.
BAYARDI also like that show because it felt like the show was turning around and watching us. We are those people. We're wandering through the rooms. We're curious about how these people live.
LAKSHMANANIt was very meta.
BAYARDAre they just like us? It was very meta. Are they just like us? Are they? Are their lives really any better, any worse? You know, it was the same questions that a tour guide would have to answer.
LAKSHMANANIs it a rose tinted love letter to Tories and aristocrats, Sophie?
GILBERTI think it's certainly idealized in so many ways. I mean, especially the way that Lord Grantham has kind of silently accepted all these dramatic changes in his household, like Tom Branson, like his illegitimate granddaughter, Marigold. I mean, he's sort of given basically the equivalent of a big shrug after initial kind of huff and puff about it. And I'm not sure how completely accurate...
LAKSHMANANAnd his daughter's dalliances.
GILBERTYes, of course. And obviously being confronted with...
LAKSHMANANYou know the one quote, respectable one, was the one who actually ran off, eloped and married her Irish chauffeur whereas the ones who didn't run off and were more sort of a socially acceptable really secretly having dalliances of their own on the unmarried.
GILBERTYes. And then housemates coming to blackmail them. Poor Lord Grantham.
LAKSHMANANAll right. Let's take a call from Estelle in Pittsburgh, PA. Estelle, you're on the air.
ESTELLEThank you very much.
ESTELLEI think this whole program illustrates why "Downtown Abbey" has been so popular. The breadth of the coverage of issues is wildly impressive. I wanted to raise the treatment of Americans on the show. However briefly they appear. Cora, Lady Grantham, was the eligible spouse to Lord Grantham because of the money she brought to the estate. And yet she is portrayed as someone who seems to be reasonable and wise and dignified. I think she carries the American image well. On the other hand, when her mother and brother come to visit, I found them to be extremely unpleasant in almost everything they said and did. And I wondered whether Julian Fellowes is conflicted about his views of Americans.
LAKSHMANANWhat an interesting question Estelle asks, because it is true that the two who come across the pond to visit are the ugly Americans, whereas Cora, who's been assimilated into this great house and this Protestant lifestyle, upper class, she's the sort of reasonable one. What about the shows depiction of America and Americans? Sophie.
GILBERTWell, I think on the one hand you have the chance to cause these two tremendous American character actors, Shirley MacLaine and Paul Giamatti.
BAYARDPaul Giamatti, yeah.
GILBERTWho were just fantastic in their roles and plus Julian Fellowes was given the opportunity and just chose to write these rather unfortunate depictions of Americans. I think Paul Giamatti's character has gambling problems. Shirley MacLaine is a battle ax to rival even the dowager countess herself.
LAKSHMANANOr even more so because she's somehow less appealing as a character.
GILBERTYeah. Well, rather she has less sort of aristocratic iron in her core. I'm not sure. Lou, what do you think about how Americans are portrayed?
BAYARDWell, I found those characters very amusing. And I thought Shirley MacLaine did a wonderful job of portraying a kind of the new money, the nouveau riche American. But I come back to Cora as the caller said, I think of her as the moral center of the show. She is unfailingly kind, nonjudgmental. And I think it's fascinating that he should choose a middle aged American woman as kind of the moral anchor of the show. I think he's fine with Americans actually.
LAKSHMANANAlthough I think she's quite simpering in the first several episodes.
BAYARDShe does simper.
LAKSHMANANIt takes a while to get used to her.
BAYARDIt's her mannerisms I think, yes.
LAKSHMANANIt's, oh, something about her. I'm Indira Lakshmanan, and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." All right. We have a website comment from a listener, Elaine, who says, "I watch the show as a bizarre, alien world which looks familiar, but ultimately makes little sense to me. It gives me insight to another culture, and I fully embrace the idea that it was a dying way of life. I don't watch it for some fantastical nostalgia, But to see why that way of life was so insupportable and why it had to go away. And it was the women who were the heroines for me, not Robert." Mo, she's talking about how that era that you study, it should go away.
MOULTONYou know, I'm kind of glad to hear that the viewer can get that from the show, because it romanticizes that way of life so thoroughly. I think that, you know, there's a sense of looming disaster, right? The idea that the entire interwar period, the 1920s and '30s, they're sometimes called the long weekend, and that's -- meaning a weekend in between, you know, World War I and World War II.
MOULTONAnd it's impossible for these last couple of seasons of "Downtown" not to be overshadowed by what we know is coming in the 1930s and the rise of fascism and the outbreak of World War II, which ultimately totally remakes British society, and leads to the creation of the -- welfare stayed after 1945, and the real disappearance of the sort of aristocracy as a governing class. Although, you know, there are still sort of vestiges there for sure.
MOULTONAnd, yeah, I mean, I think that if you read between the lines, the idea of, you know, that Mr. Mason the farmer still having to tug his forelock at the -- to the great landowners, or Anna having to rely on the kindness of Lady Mary in order to get the -- to get decent care for her somewhat difficult pregnancy. You know, all of those things, they're sort of raising potential problems. The whole hospital subplot. That you can see being...
LAKSHMANANYou mean the takeover of the village hospital by a main hospital...
LAKSHMANAN...in York and the battle over it.
MOULTONExactly. I think I'm the only person who's excited about that subplot.
BAYARDYou are the only person. You are the only person.
LAKSHMANANAll right. Well, we have a listener, Cindy, who says, "I love 'Downtown Abbey,' but doesn't it feel like a remake of 'Upstairs, Downstairs'"?
BAYARDIt definitely is. It definitely has elements of that. I think the innovation of Julian Fellowes is he took that template of the costume drama and he gave it the pacing of a police procedural. If you watch old episodes of "Upstairs, Downstairs," you'll be amazed at how glacially pasted it is. Whereas this show, I don't think the scenes ever last more than a minute. And there are about 16 different plot threads all being sort of juggled at one time. So even if you're kind of tired of one plot line, you just have to wait around and there'll be another one in 20 seconds. You don't have time to get bored.
LAKSHMANANWell, Janet tells us on Facebook, "I'm a lifelong Anglophile, but I found 'Downtown Abbey' to be as soapy and boring as 'The Young and the Restless.' I never got into it, though I tried." It's interesting because I could never get into "The Young and the Restless." And all my friends say that "Downtown Abbey" is the soap opera for people who hate soap operas. But clearly it doesn't appeal to everyone.
LAKSHMANANAll right. We have a -- we have another email from Batesville, Ark. Appropriately Batesville. And the emailer says, "I feel so heartbroken for Edith, and I really want Birdie to come ruing back to marry her in the season finale. Why did Mary spill the beans? Should Edith have told him how scandalous was an illegitimate child at the time for the aristocracy? And what are the storylines that you guys want to see wrapped up Sunday, and why?" Well, there's a lot in that...
BAYARDThat's a lot.
BAYARDThat's a lot.
LAKSHMANANAll right. I don't know if you guys have seen the finale yet.
BAYARDI have, yeah.
LAKSHMANANOkay. I bought it on iTunes and streamed it. I couldn't wait, but I promise not to be a spoiler.
LAKSHMANANI promise not to be a spoiler. What do you think about what the listener wrote in about Edith and that whole subplot?
BAYARDYeah, that was a heartbreaking moment for Edith. You could say I suppose that she brought it on herself by not divulging it earlier. She was a little kind of weak-willed on that point. I think -- Mo can maybe back me up. I think it would've been an enormous scandal for a highborn young woman to have a child out of wedlock in that day. I think that would've been a serious problem, and would've meant ruin. So I don't think that they're exaggerating that aspect of it anyway.
GILBERTIt's a theme that Julian Fellowes explored as well in his film, "Gosford Park," which he actually won an Oscar for the writing, in which case not to spoil, well, though to some extent I have to, but one of the suspects who's suspected of murder, and that is -- that turns out to be the illegitimate son of the sort of Lord Grantham character who's this very wealthy landowner. And he...
LAKSHMANANAlthough he was a bad Lord Grantham.
BAYARDYes, I was going to say.
GILBERTHe was a very bad Lord Grantham.
LAKSHMANANHe was not a good guy.
BAYARDNo, no, no.
GILBERTAnd he would sleep with young workers in the factories and young maids and get them pregnant and offer them the choice to either give their babies up or they could keep their babies and lose their jobs. And so it was definitely horrible situation to be in.
BAYARD"Gosford Park" was a much more complex vision of that portrait of that same era. Maybe because it was directed by an American, Robert Altman.
LAKSHMANANAll right. Well, we're going to take one last, as a round robin, one last listener comment from Twitter. Kerry wants to know, any prediction as to what will be the last line of "Downtown Abbey," and who will say it? Anyone.
BAYARDWell, I can't -- I've already seen it, so I can't...
LAKSHMANANOh, you've already seen it.
BAYARD...I can't weigh in.
LAKSHMANANYou're out of the running.
LAKSHMANANMo and Sophie?
MOULTONI haven't seen it.
LAKSHMANANOkay. So you actually have...
LAKSHMANAN...some -- there's actually some real anticipation for you and what's going to happen.
LAKSHMANANDo you think Edith is going to get back together with Bertie?
MOULTONOh, I can only hope that she does. I mean, I definitely agree that illegitimacy was a huge scandal, and would've been a huge scandal for Lady Edith. And, you know, she really didn't have options in terms of adoption and that sort of thing. It absolutely would've been a huge thing to disclose to hi, but...
LAKSHMANANBut the poor thing, she deserves a happy ending.
MOULTONYeah, she's been like -- she certainly does. She's my favorite character the whole time. And I hope things work out for her. But I hope that Maggie Smith gets the last word.
LAKSHMANANOh. We can all hope for that. She has been such a treat, the dowager countess. All right. That's Mo Moulton, lecturer in history and literature at Harvard University, author of "Watching Downtown Abbey with an Historian," blog. Also Sophie Gilbert of The Atlantic. And Louis Bayard of the "Downtown Abbey Recaps," for The New York Times, and George Washington University. Thanks to all three of you for joining me for this wonderful hour. Thank you, listeners, for tuning in and sending us your thoughts. I'm Indira Lakshmanan sitting in for Diane Rehm.
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