|Montclere Castle: location of the fictional Downton Abbey|
More than 200 mansions of the type featured in Downton Abbey were destroyed between the two World Wars. Wouldn’t you have loved to know how Downton might have survived it?
Our household never missed a minute of the recently concluded BBC drama; and, like many, we were disappointed in the final episode, indeed in the entire final season.
The appeal of this soap opera springs from its adherence to the mores of the day and the history of the British estates, a history that goes back to the Tudors. By the time of Downton Abbey, a saga that straddled World War I, the British aristocracy had survived economic decline, onerous taxes and war. At the outset of the first season, Downton’s survival had depended upon a strategic marriage by the Earl to a Jewish American heiress. That was the reality of the time.
That theme -- preserving a way of life and the duty felt by the Earl to do so -- was lost in the final season. Julian Fellowes is a great writer. However, if he had bothered to ask me (not that I thought he might), I would have advised him to keep that ball in play.
In a wonderful recounting of the history of the British estates in Vanity Fair, Charles Spencer (the younger brother of Diana, Princess of Wales) captures the culture of the British aristocracy which, for centuries, lived according to a certain tradition centered on the idea that it was their solemn duty to preserve their estate along with its property, its decor and art collections.
The early seasons portrayed the Crawley family against a backdrop of modernizing the farming operations, selling parcels of land to real estate developers and (as I wrote about in “How DowntonAbbey destroyed England”) the loss of significant capital in a stock swindle.
In Spencer’s Vanity Fair piece, he summarizes the context thusly:
“… [T]he British aristocracy [was] forced to morph and contract from its final peak, in the late 1870s. Then 80 percent of the country’s acreage was owned by 7,000 families, principally those of the 431 hereditary members of the House of Lords—the dukes, marquesses, earls, viscounts, and barons of the United Kingdom. Beginning in the 1880s, the export of grain from the Americas, followed by the arrival in Europe of refrigerated meat, halved agricultural income in Britain. What had been the lifeblood of the great estates for hundreds of years was cut off suddenly, and unexpectedly, with devastating effect, in both the short and the long term: agricultural rents were the same in 1936 as they had been in 1800.
“In a grim pincer movement, taxation increased at the same time. Death duties were introduced in 1894 at 8 percent. By 1939 these had reached 60 percent. In 1948 they were levied at 75 percent on estates worth more than £1 million (an equivalent, at the time, of $4 million). The British aristocracy drew in its horns. The most prominent families sold around seven million acres, or a quarter of England itself, in the years on either side of the war’s conclusion...”
How would Lady Mary have dealt with these macroeconomic conditions? I would have loved to know.
|Laura Carmichael as Lady Edith|
I’m all for happy endings. After all, I grew up in a time when full length Disney animations of Snow White and Cinderella were Sunday evening prime-time entertainment.
However, were I writing it, the Earl, deep into his 70’s by the mid-1920’s, would have met his demise in the final season, shortly after his bleeding ulcer burst so unceremoniously during one of Downton’s famous formal dinners. And, so long as I am fiddling with the fortunes of the Crawley’s, I would have left Lady Mary refusing to marry beneath her station and the sister she despised, Lady Edith, as a fellow spinster and estate-mate, having ruined her prospects of marriage by having a child out of wedlock.
|Bette Davis and Joan Crawford in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane|
Imagine, if you will, a final scene with Mary standing astride this fading empire, her sourpuss sister skulking in the background. That would have begged for a sequel, wouldn’t it?
Would the Crawley sisters survive the socioeconomic ordeal?
Would the sequel be kind of like “WhateverHappened to Baby Jane?”