TV Testimony: Downton Mania! Part Two
Entailment (or Why Lady Mary Can’t Inherit):
When Downton Abbey opens in Series 1, the family is shocked to learn that the heir to the estate, their relative James Crawley, and his son have both died with the sinking of the Titanic. The Earl of Grantham’s daughter, Lady Mary, was set to marry Patrick Crawley, thus keeping the estate within the current family. With Patrick’s death, the estate is in danger of passing to a stranger.
The main conflict of the series revolves around the Earl’s internal struggle regarding a decision to either fight the entailment of his estate in the name of his eldest daughter, or abide by the social and legal mores of the times and let the estate pass to his distant cousin Matthew, a humble lawyer.
Entailment is a legal disease also afflicting the characters in Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen’s classic work. In that novel, the Bennett sisters (most notably Jane, the eldest) cannot inherit Longbourn because the state is entailed away to the nearest male relative. In the Bennetts’ case, this is the hideous parson Mr. Collins, who is their second cousin.
In Downton Abbey, Downton is also entailed to the nearest male heir. The current Earl has the right to the estate and all its property during his lifetime. This is known in legalese as a fee tail. He may occupy the property, but he CANNOT sell Downton or its belongings, as they belong to the estate and not the Earl personally.
But wait – Pride and Prejudice takes place in the early 1800s, and Downton is over 100 years later. Surely the Brits would have fixed all that outdated “male heirs only” nonsense, right? Nope. Even today, the current monarchy and many of the major dukedoms, earldoms, etc. STILL pass to the nearest and eldest MALE heir first, although inheritance rules are much more flexible than they used to be. This is why we have Elizabeth II instead of one of her male cousins on the throne.
All the money spent to build up and maintain Downton comes from the current Countess (Cora, played by Elizabeth McGovern)’s inheritance from her wealthy American family. This is the origin of Cora’s anger that HER money cannot ensure her own daughter’s future. No matter what she does, her hard work will benefit someone else. Because she did not produce a male heir, when her husband dies, she and her daughters will be out of a home (a home that was kept during the current generation through funds from Cora herself). This provides much of the conflict between Cora and her husband and mother-in-law (the Dowager Countess, played by Maggie Smith), who cannot understand why Cora doesn’t play by the Brits’ rules.
This is also what leads everyone in the family to encourage the match between kind-hearted but middle class Matthew Crawley and aristocratic and cold Lady Mary. If Mary marries Matthew, she would bring the estate back into the current family. How romantic, right?!
Upstairs/Downstairs (or Who’s Who in the Hierarchy at Downton):
The upstairs folks would be the Crawley family. Their title is “Grantham”, but Crawley is the family name. They are led by the current Earl of Grantham, Robert (Hugh Bonneville). He is the Earl for his lifetime. Unfortunately, he has no male heirs, only three daughters.
His wife, the current Countess of Grantham, Cora (Elizabeth McGovern), is an American heiress. Their marriage was arranged to save the crumbling Downton, but it became a love match over time.
The Crawley daughters are Lady Mary, Lady Edith and Lady Sybil. Lady Mary and Lady Edith are good aristocratic daughters who each desire to marry another rich aristocrat and live happily ever after. Lady Sybil has had enought of all that jazz and has decided to become a suffragist, to the horror of most of the family. As you might expect, she’s the most likable sibling.
Then there’s the Dowager Countess, Lady Violet (Maggie Smith). She became the Dowager Countess when the current Earl married Cora. Her role is mostly as a figurehead, although she enjoys sticking her nose into the current estate’s business whenever possible. She doesn’t live at Downton, but she’s there so often she might as well.
The Earl also has a rich sister, Lady Rosamund Painswick, whom we’ll see more of in Series 2.
Here’s the pecking order of folks “Upstairs” by rank:
Robert, Earl of Grantham
Cora, Countess of Grantham
Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham
Matthew Crawley (heir apparent)
The servant ranks are a little more difficult to understand, so let’s group them into categories. There is the “House” staff and the “Kitchen” staff. All of the Downton staff live in the servants quarters in House Proper.
The “House” staff can be divided into the male and female ranks. The “House” staff is led by the Housekeeper, Mrs. Hughes, who supervises the female staff of both the house and the kitchen, and the Butler, Mr. Carson, who supervises the male staff. These two are the forces that keep Downton Abbey running.
The Earl and the Countess each have a personal servant. For the Earl, it is his valet (pronounced VAL IT in GBR, not the “French” way) , John Bates. A valet is basically a jack of all trades. He dresses the Earl, fetches what he needs and is essentially at his beck and call. The Countess has O’Brien, her Lady’s Maid. O’Brien is basically the female version of a valet, but also serves more of a companion role to the lady of the house. O’Brien and Bates are second in rank only to the Housekeeper and Butler, and they enjoy special privileges as “upper” servants.
Mrs. Patmore is the cook; she is under the supervision of Mrs. Hughes, but also has several scullery maids under her direct care, including Daisy.
Anna is the Head Housemaid – she is in charge of the overall cleaning and daily upkeep of the rooms at Downton, as well as serving the family at meals. In Series One, Gwen is the Second Housemaid, who has the same duties but not as much seniority.
Thomas is the First Footman, although he is angling for John Bates’s job for much of the first series. William is the Second Footman. Both men are in charge of the basic manual labor that goes into keeping the household running. Like the housemaids, they are also responsible for serving the family at dinner. Interestingly enough, taller footmen were more desirable. The taller a footman was, the higher his rate of pay in some households!
Most servants would have two basic uniforms – one for “day” wear, and one for “formal”/evening occasions.
The final “servant” is Branson, the Earl’s Driver. He is responsible for the upkeep on the families motorcars, and for taking them wherever they would need to go. Before the advent of motorcars (which would have been in the current Earl’s lifetime), this post would have been called the Groom, and he would have had the care of any horses and carriages belonging to the estate.
Basically, here’s the hierarchy of the Downstairs folks:
Mrs. Hughes and Mr. Carson (Housekeeper and Butler)
O’Brien (Lady’s Maid)/John Bates (Valet)
Mrs. Patmore (Cook)
Anna (Head Housemaid)/Thomas (First Footman)
William (Second Footman)
Gwen (Second Housemaid)
Daisy (Scullery Maid)
That wraps it up for Downton Mania! Check out the first series on PBS.org, and be sure and tune in on January 8th for the premiere of Series 2!
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