Historical accuracy is something that can be tricky to address in terms of period drama. A better way to think about Downton Abbey is how “credible” it is. The pilot episode takes place in 1912, just after the sinking of the Titanic, which carried the heir apparent to Downton’s estate. The Crawley family, owns the estate, has only managed to produce daughter and therefore cannot inherit the estate. The Crawley daughters’ inability to inherit has to do with “primogeniture,” which guided the British monarchy for centuries. The short definition for that is that titles could be passed through men, not women. The eldest Crawley daughter, ends up marrying a distant cousin and with the birth of the son, they become next in line to inherit the estate.
However as a plot twist in the final season of the show takes place in the 1925, aka the same year that England abolished the law the guides the mens only inheritance. This means that one of the major problems that persists throughout the show, was resolved and that meant that Robert Crawley could in turn end up leaving the estate to his eldest daughter, which would have solved the problem that appeared in season 1.
Another major issue that had to be addressed in a period manner was that the middle daughter and one that is most ignored daughter with Edith gets pregnant. Edith lacked the foresight to procure birth control before her endeavors. To make the situation worse, the man then completely disappears leaving Edith alone with the baby. She decides to instead of having an abortion, she has the baby and then give it up for adoption, rather than soil her family’s reputation. Because the show takes place in the early 1920s, her decision not to have an abortion may well have been as much out of fear for her safety as it was a fear of social reprisal. During that time surgeries were still being performed rather rudimentarily, because they were taking place with our modern antibiotics or life-saving technologies like blood transfusions. As opposed to these surgeries Edith would have most likely would have forced a miscarriage as an abortion. This of course however had its own dangers as many women at that time would have complications with childbirth. For most women at that time, having a child out of wedlock would have put themselves in a position where they would have struggled to have a healthy happy life for the the rest of their lives.
Another major aspect of the story was the various love stories that take place throughout the series, whether it’s Anna and Mr. Bates or the romance where in the Christmas special the stolid Butler Carson proposes to the well loved housekeeper Mrs. Hughes. However one thing that wasn’t historically accurate. In these large estates all the people that held the various positions had to people that were unmarried. Housekeepers were always referred to as “Mrs” as an honored title that was given as a form of respect, in order to differentiate themselves from the lesser ranking female servants. However it wasn’t uncommon for former butlers and housekeepers of these grand estates to set off into the sunset together after they retired from their jobs. But it wouldn’t be as the television industry would portray it as. They would likely work together or own businesses together. If that had happened while they were still employed it would have been grounds for firing one or both of them. Because the Butler was male, he would slightly outrank even the housekeeper and as such, it would be most likely be the woman who would be fired.
The show does do a very good job of portraying the fashions and the rituals of the time. Small mistakes such as the show portraying the end of World War I ending in the spring where in real life it ended in the fall. The one thing that the show did a great job of portraying the lushness of a way of life. The way of life that may be over-the-top, extravagant, however the show presents the characters as both human and humane. Overall the show does a great job following the timeline of history while simultaneously adding the story of a fictional family in England after the end of World War I.
By Brendan Carr