For the past five years, George Mason University history and cultural studies professor Dina M. Copelman has been in the enviable position of getting a sneak peek at each season of the PBS hit television show “Downton Abbey.” In exchange for this peek, Copelman, an expert on late 19th- and early 20th-century British history, provides commentary about the show for the WETA PBS website. Downton Abbey’s sixth and final season began on Jan. 3.
Q: How did you get the opportunity to work with WETA?
A: I was contacted by Mason alumnus Mark Jones, MA History ’04. He works in digital media at WETA and also writes and coordinates some of the historical material that appears on the station’s website. After the success of the show’s first season, he thought viewers would be interested in knowing more about the show’s context.
Q: As a historian, how do you think they did in terms of representing an era in British history?
A: The production values are excellent. The show has a very talented team of costume and set designers who work hard to create a compelling visual experience. Costume designers, for instance, incorporate parts of period outfits into the new ones they create for the show’s characters.
The show also employs experts to provide advice about etiquette and other aspects of aristocratic life during the early decades of the 20th century. These efforts provide meaningful historical accuracy, but the characters and events are the product of significant creative license. Servants’ lives were much harder and grittier. Aristocratic families were considerably less concerned with the well-being of their employees and more focused on sustaining their status and being up to date on the affairs—whether economic or romantic—of their class.
The show is also less effective in conveying what was going on in the larger world. World War I is certainly shown to be a cataclysmic event, but we have little sense of the social and political consequences of the war and the many crises that shaped the 1920s. The show does provide a sense of changing social mores—its portrayal of changing gender roles and sexuality is more complex. And it also shows how new technologies and cultural phenomena—cars and jazz, for instance—were transforming life for all social strata.
Q: What do you think it is about the show that made it such a hit?
A: The show is beautiful. It’s candy without calories. It’s drama and romance and fantasy, but a highbrow version that one can share with friends and feel part of a larger conversation—a global one at that!
In my comments [for WETA], I also note that Americans have a long-standing fascination with the British monarchy and aristocracy. Indeed the show itself reflects that, given Lady Grantham is one of numerous “dollar princesses”—wealthy American women who married British aristocrats in an exchange of money for status. Part of the plot is that, in spite of these beginnings, Cora and Robert came to truly love one another. That plot line is part of what makes the show compelling, since it suggests that financial considerations can be overcome by affection and character. That’s a nice message at a time of global—and local—financial crises. Whether or not it’s plausible, it’s a comforting escape on winter Sundays.
Q: Who is your favorite character?
A: Mrs. Patmore, the cook, because she’s simultaneously sympathetic, human and complex. She’s got an important position and has to be an effective supervisor. She’s working class but respected, and she has contact with all the different social levels that comprise the household. She has to keep up with changing culinary tastes and newfangled gadgets. She has to handle a budget and deal with the outside world through the shopkeepers she works with—all while being a loving but stern mother figure to Daisy, the young kitchen maid. And she’s the only character who actually looks like she sweats when she works!
Q: Any recommendations (books, films and television) for people who loved the series?
A: For those interested in the lives of women at the time, two recent movies come to mind: “Suffragette” examines the campaign for women’s right to vote, combining fictional characters and real events about the actions of the militant Women’s Social and Political Union; and “Testament of Youth” based on the autobiographical account of the same name by Vera Brittain, an upper middle-class young woman whose desires to get a university education and become independent are turned upside down by World War I—she loses her fiancé, her brother and so many other people she was close to, and her life is forever transformed.
Two books also come to mind, one that’s a classic by now and one that was published just a few years ago. The classic is Paul Fussell’s “The Great War and Modern Memory,” first published in 1975. It’s a wonderful account of how World War I changed the ways people saw the world, the very vocabularies they used to make sense of their lives. It examines both well-known war poets as well as things like form letters created for soldiers to be able to update their families quickly. The more recent book is “Nights Out” by Judith Walkowitz, a study of London’s West End in the interwar period. Walkowitz highlights the ways mass culture, politics and new artistic forms came together to create a cross-class, multiracial and multi-ethnic vibrant urban space.