Sep 15 2011 1:30pm

The Down-Low on Downton Abbey: Preparing for Downton Abbey Season 2!

Lady Sybil as a Nurse in Downton AbbeyAs we gear up for Downton Abbey Season 2, starting to air in the U.K. this Sunday, we thought we’d offer some historical perspective on what the Downton Abbey community is facing with the onset of World War I. Let’s just say, it’s more than tea parties, social class scuffles, and finding the right eligible man to marry!

It is fitting that the first season of Downton Abbey was bookended with a telegram—one announcing the sinking of the Titanic, and the other announcing war. When the second series of Downton Abbey opens, it is late 1916, and the leap ahead is a compelling move, for this year marked the end of antiquated Victorian tactics and the beginning of a full-scale, modern war utilizing every technological advance of the 1890s and 1900s, the beginnings of twentieth century British politics, and the foundation for the conflict in the Middle East:

The huge volunteer army that Britain had been training and equipping for two years was at last thrown into the conflict on the Somme, and there most of a generation of young men were killed. For all of the warring powers, 1916 was a year of catastrophe. But perhaps for Britain, uninvolved in any important war for a century and unused to the collision of great armies, the hideous losses of the Somme were more of a shock. There came the realization by the end of the year that the war was no closer to decision than it had been two years earlier. —Britain Since 1918 (1967) by Bentley B. Gilbert

Downton Abbey Season 2 Cast Photo









According to Alastair Bruce, historical advisor for Downton Abbey, “the shock of the Great War was that first of all, it was most definitely not, and secondly, it went on for a great deal longer than anyone expected. And it therefore absorbed everyone into its mayhem.”

Almost immediately after the Armistice, there was a pressing urge to look backward to the glorious Edwardian age—which materialized in the flood of memoirs and reminisces by Edwardians published in the late teens and 1920s, and the attempt to turn back the clock on women’s fashions. But it was much too late: the four years of military blunders, carnage, despair, rationing, women’s independence, and political upheaval accelerated the tensions and changes in pre-war society to a breaking point, and the old order was now smashed to bits.

Each inhabitant of Downton Abbey reacts to this change in a myriad of ways:

—For the men, not only did the Great War threaten loss of limb or of life, but one’s assurance of their place in society.

—For the women, autonomy and independence were thrust upon them, whether or not they agitated for the vote and legal advances before the war.

—For the upper classes, the deaths of nearly an entire generation of young men—many of them heirs to great titles and estates—struck a blow at the foundations of their class (primogeniture) and their already depleted wealth (death duties).

—For the servants, women no longer needed the security of domestic service when they could work in a munitions factory, and the excessive kowtowing required of them grew increasingly anachronistic.

Matthew Crawley in Uniform in Downton Abbey Season 2The same could be said for the men in the trenches along the Western Front. The Battle of the Somme, a major—and disastrous—offensive launched by the Allies in July 1916, dominated the second half of that year. Trench warfare was violent, traumatizing, and demoralizing. The close quarters and fatalities also broke down class lines (though not enough, as gentlemen with little to no fighting experience entered the army as officers, and their lower-class counterparts entered in the enlistment ranks), as both peer and servant, rich and poor, educated and illiterate, lived under the daily siege of poison gas, flamethrowers, machine guns, and high explosive shells. By the Somme’s end in November, it had become the deadliest operation in history with one million fatalities.

Ironically, the cut-off age firmly marked the irrelevancy of the old Victorian generation and their emphasis on the middle aged, a development which further chips away at Robert’s smug paternalism and assurance of his place in life. For William, unable to enlist at the behest of his family, and Branson, hesitant to enlist because of his political convictions, their continued presence in England no doubt tests their fortitude under the weight of wartime propaganda and the arrival of wounded soldiers at Downton.

The Home Front was no less traumatizing, where everyone was faced with food shortages, a steep decline in income (plus taxation), and the general anxiety or grief over the deaths of friends’ sons and male relatives. For women, the biggest shock was their sudden increase in autonomy. I blogged about the change in women’s roles at Edwardian Promenade a few weeks ago, where I found women’s war work shockingly broad in its scope. The 1922 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica devotes nearly 20 pages to this topic, which ranged from civilian work (canteens, supplies, fundraising, etc), to military work (WRENs, WRAF, the Women’s Volunteer Reserve, etc), to factory work (munitions, shells, gas masks, etc), to medical work (nurses, doctors, ambulance drivers, etc), to replacing the absent men as tram conductors, police officers, and so on.

A Maid in Downton Abbey Season 2The second series will be composed of eight episodes, running from the Battle of the Somme in 1916 to the Armistice in 1918. In between those dates, other historical events the second series will cover is the Battle of Verdun, the Russian Revolution and the British capture of Jerusalem; on the domestic front there is a serious shortage of able-bodied men for home front jobs, also there is the election of David Lloyd George as Prime Minister (whom the Dowager Countess despises) and his creation of the wartime coalition. Matthew Crawley, Thomas, and William Mason are off fighting in the war, while Lord Grantham cannot serve due to his age and Tom Branson is unsure that he wants to fight for England. Lady Sybil Crawley defies her aristocratic position and enlists in Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service.

Lady Sybil’s involvement with QAIMNS was daring, since aristocratic mothers continued to keep their daughters away from men—especially wounded men not of their class. However, the work could be shocking and gruesome, and it was not uncommon for young ladies to unwind with alcohol, or, as with Lady Diana Manners, chloroform, and other drugs. The most drastic change to Downton Abbey is its use as a convalescent home.

Lady Edith finds her purpose in life on the estate, taking a much larger and more administrative role that would have been impossible before 1914, and Lady Mary represents the conflict of young women of the war era, who were torn between the opportunities awaiting them and the upbringing they’d always known. The housing of wounded soldiers in Downton Abbey presents a challenge for Cora, who has lost most of her staff to active service, and, as with other ladies of her station, is faced a loss of control of her home, and as the Americans had yet to enter the war, she is no doubt placed in a difficult position regarding her loyalties. This stress definitely takes a toll on Isobel, and Violet no doubt reacts to the chaos with her customary witticism and common sense.

ITV has kept a tight lid on the plot’s twists and turns, but for those desiring to brush up on life during WWI, I have included a list of recommended books for your perusal:

The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman
Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain
Not So Quiet: Stepdaughters of War by Helen Zenna Smith
All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque
A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway
The Return of the Soldier by Rebecca West
Good-Bye to All That by Robert Graves
Storm of Steel by Ernst Jünger


Evangeline Holland is a writer of historical romances, an amateur milliner, and a really great cook. When not writing or reading, you can find her blogging about the Edwardian era on her website, the aptly titled Edwardian Promenade.

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Lisa Cox
1. brontëgirl
Interesting post! For Canadian and American fictional perspectives, see Rilla of Ingleside by Lucy Maud Montgomery, Betsy and the Great World and Betsy's Wedding by Maud Hart Lovelace, and the play 1918 by Horton Foote.
Louise Partain
2. Louise321
For additional interesting historic fictional accounts, Anne Perry did a series following a family through the war and showing a good deal of the wrong headed leadership, the needless deaths of fine young men, the crisis of faith said deaths brought on, the field nursing and valiant ambulance drivers holding their transports together with spare parts and a prayer, and the international intrigue that plagued Great Britain in the war effort. The first book was No Graves Yet.
Bridget McAdam
3. BridgetM
Thank you for such a fascinating entry! I just wish we didn't have to wait until January for our Downton fix on this side of the Atlantic!

I wondered about Branson's possible military service during the offseason. Were there specific Irish regiments he might possibly have felt more comfortable serving in? Although I can understand his reluctance as he's agitating for Irish independence and these units would still technically be under English control wouldn't they?
4. EvangelineHolland
@brontëgirl: Awesome recommendations. One of my hopes for the upcoming season is that they include Cora's perspective as an American-born countess. The US was virulently isolationist even after we entered the war in 1917, and it would be interesting to see how she reacts to a war to which her family back in America cannot understand or support.

@Louise321: Yes, the Perry books are wonderful, harrowing, and heart-breaking. I should have created a second list for WWI fiction written by non-contemporaries!

@BridgetM: You're welcome! As for waiting until January to see this, I take heart that PBS has promised to air all episodes in their entirety--so no cuts or cramming anything into four 90 minute airings.

Regarding Irish soldiers in WWI, they did fight for the Allies, but many remained conflicted about it, especially when just as hostilities broke out, Parliament was on the verge of hashing out another Home Rule bill. And don't forget that 1916 was also the year of the Easter Rising! The BBC has a wonderful micro-site about the war and here is a section about the Irish in WWI.
Marguerite Kaye
5. Marguerite Kaye
Fab post. I'm looking forward to this series for lots of reasons, not least because I'm right in the middle of writing a Regency-style Downton Abbey with 7 other Harlequin writers which has the impact of the Napoleonic Wars on a big aristocratic family as one of it's themes (sorry, just couldn't help the plug). I've read all Vera Brittan's 'Testament" books and found them really, deeply moving. I've also got a copy of her "Letters of a Lost Generation" which no-one could read without crying. The Great War as a subject is compelling, I think it's one of the few events that truly did reshape an entire genration and change the world they lived in entirely. I wish there were more stories set in and around the time, maybe Downton will finally get them past the gatekeepers.
Marguerite Kaye
6. Jan the Alan Fan
Another fictional account of the Home Front during WWI is Mercedes Lackey's 'Phoenix and Ashes' (set in an alternate England where magic exists, though not enough to prevent wars, unfortunately).
7. EvangelineHolland
@Marguerite Thank ou! The Harlequin Historical mini-series sounds incredible--I can't wait to read the books. And I'm writing Edwardian/WWI-set stories as fast as I can! ;D

@Jan: Lackey's latest release, Unnatural Issue (another in the Elemental Masters series), is also set during WWI.
Marguerite Kaye
8. Karen H in NC
I didn't watch the Emmy's last night but I understand Downton Abbey won not only the Outstanding miniseries or movie but also one for writing and one for directing. Congratulations to Downton Abbey and can't wait for Season 2 to begin airing.
Marguerite Kaye
9. brontëgirl
@EvangelineHolland, Thanks! If I remember correctly, Sidney Taylor's Ella of All-of-A-Kind family is set during WWI. So are at least two of Eleanor Estes' Moffat books, which chronicle the lives of four siblings in small-town Connecticut; Estes decribes how the children and their fellow classmates learn to knit to make socks and scarves, etc., for the soldiers.
Gillian Pavarotti
10. GillianPavarotti
My son found a way to use a proxy server so I can see Downton Abbey. Your accounts of the series are spot on. I am ever so grateful for this site where we can share our love for the show. Many thanks to you for your efforts. I want to mention that when you watch season 2, episode 2, it begins with a man riding a bicycle up to the Abbey. I think it is Jullian Fellows on the bicycle. I just wondered if anyone else has noticed that?
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