The upstairs/downstairs world of Downton Abbey: how true to life is it?

The drama Downton Abbey first appeared on our TV screens more than a decade ago, and has since run for six seasons and a feature film, with another on the way in December 2021. But how much do the relationships on screen reflect the real sensibilities of the Edwardian period and the interwar years – and how do they serve as a reflection of our own perceptions of early 20th century history? Dr Carolyn Harris explores the depictions of lives both above and below stairs in the hit series…

The cast of Downton Abbey in front of Highclere Castle. (Image by Alamy)

How much of Downton Abbey is inspired by real history? The hit TV series – which first aired between 2010 and 2015, followed by a 2019 feature film – explores the fates of the aristocratic Crawley family and their staff in the early 20th century. Set in the fictional Yorkshire country estate of Downton Abbey, the drama explores the lives and loves of the main characters through tragedy, world war and social upheavals. Dr Carolyn Harris takes a closer look at the relationships and history portrayed on screen…

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Downton Abbey emphasises the interdependent relationship between the Crawley family and their servants, and the close bonds that bridge the social class divide. The series implies that the close proximity between people of different social backgrounds in a traditional country estate created opportunities to exchange confidences, develop friendships and perhaps even pursue romances that transcended the social hierarchy of the times.

But the recollections of people who worked in domestic service from the Edwardian era to the Second World War suggest that employers of the time rarely took such a close interest in the daily lives and opinions of their servants. While friendships were possible and marriages across the social class divide occasionally took place, former domestic servants often recalled being treated as though they were household furnishings, expected to remain unobtrusive and keep their opinions to themselves.

Are the Crawleys of Downton Abbey a real family?

The fictional Crawleys are based on the Earls and Countesses of Carnarvon, who still reside at Highclere Castle, where the series is filmed (though the fictional Downton Abbey is in Yorkshire, rather than Hampshire, where Highclere is).The current Countess of Carnarvon’s books, Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey and Lady Catherine and the Real Downton Abbey, describes how Almina Herbert, the illegitimate daughter of the banker Baron de Rothschild, then Catherine Wendell, an American, married two successive Earls of Carnarvon, bringing new wealth and perspectives to the estate.

A photograph of a castle in gardens
Highclere Castle was a filming location for the British period drama Downton Abbey. (Image by Getty Images)

Lady Almina transformed Highclere into a convalescent home during the First World War, and Lady Catherine hosted 20th-century royal visitors (Prince George, Duke of Kent was a family friend), themes that emerged in the Downton Abbey series and film. Although both women were born outside the titled British aristocracy, their relations with their servants remained hierarchical. The Countess of Carnarvon states, in Lady Catherine and the Real Downton Abbey, that Catherine had the same lady’s maid, Marcelle, from the age of 14, and that she was “as much a confidante as she was a lady’s maid”. But the book does not mention whether Marcelle, nicknamed ‘Doll’ by the Wendell family, viewed Catherine as a friend and confidant in addition to an employer.

In contrast, the personal lives of the Crawleys and their servants are intertwined from the beginning of the series. Robert Crawley, Lord Grantham employs John Bates – his injured former batman [soldier-servant] from the Boer Wars – as his valet, although other members of the Crawley family (and other servants) question whether Bates will be able to perform his duties adequately while walking with a cane.

Meanwhile, Cora Crawley, Lady Grantham and her daughters – Lady Mary, Lady Edith and Lady Sybil – all form close bonds with servants or tenants on the estate. Mary and the housemaid Anna Smith become close friends and confide in one another. Lady Edith kisses farmer John Drake after helping drive his tractor during the labour shortages of the First World War, and later places her illegitimate child in the care of another tenant farmer, Timothy Drewe. Lady Sybil helps the housemaid Gwen Harding interview for a new career as a secretary and later marries the chauffeur, Tom Branson.

Dining at Downton

A dinner party early in series one demonstrates the close connections between the Crawleys and their servants.

Dinner parties are key set pieces throughout Downton Abbey from the first season to the film. They bring together characters of all social classes as the Crawleys dine with each other and a wide range of guests, from royalty to opera singers. They are waited on by their servants, who of course overhear conversations and conflicts that shape their own opinions and decisions. As historian Nicoletta F Gullace noted in her article in the Journal of British Cinema and Television, “meals in particular connect those above and below stairs in a nexus of inequality” as the labour of the servants to create and serve multicourse dinners is contrasted with the leisured dining of the Crawleys and their guests.

A dinner scene from Downton Abbey, with large candlesticks on the table
Dinner at Downton Abbey. (Photo by moviestills)

At a dinner party in episode three of season one, visiting Turkish diplomat Kemal Pamuk listens to the Crawley family discuss Gwen’s career aspirations. The middle-class Matthew Crawley, his mother Isobel, and Lady Sybil – the youngest of the Earl and Countess of Grantham’s daughters – support housemaid Gwen’s desire to pursue her own goals. But Violet, the Dowager Countess of Grantham, wonders why anyone would prefer “a cramped and gloomy office” to “a large and pleasant house” and asks the butler Carson to support her opinion.

Cora does not pass judgement on Gwen’s goals but states that, “It matters that the people who live and work here are content.” Amongst the family, only Lady Mary remarks, “Why are we talking about this? Why does it matter?” When asked his opinion, the guest Pamuk is confused by the amount of interest the family takes in the future life of a housemaid, saying: “Why are you English so curious about other people’s lives? If she wishes to leave, and the law permits it, then let her go.”

Pamuk’s perspective is presented in the series as that of an outsider observing English customs, but other English aristocratic families of the time might well have shared Pamuk’s views and wondered why the Crawley family took so much interest in the personal contentment of their servants – they are even seen to ask members of the staff for their opinions on the ideal workplace.

Servants and employers: a warm relationship?

The recollections of women who worked in domestic service between the First and Second World Wars are not filled with memories of a warm rapport with their employers but instead describe a strict social hierarchy where servants were expected to always know their place.

In her book Servants: A Downstairs View of Twentieth-Century Britain, Lucy Lethbridge states that employers might describe the relationship with a long-time servant as a friendship but “it should be noted that servants themselves rarely use that word and in many cases are in fact uncomfortable with it”.

Lethbridge cites an Oxfordshire nursemaid who recalled that her employers “weren’t unkind” simply because they didn’t pay much attention. “I honestly think they took no notice of you at all. You just looked after them, you knew how to behave and if you didn’t when you went you soon learned it from the others.”

A black and white photo of five servants in Edwardian serving dress
Servants at Biddlesden Park House, Buckinghamshire, c1896-c1920. (Photo by English Heritage/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

Historical servants did recall a few of the individual circumstances dramatised in Downton Abbey. There were employers who loaned books to the servants, in the manner of Lord Grantham, and Lethbridge notes there was general agreement that chauffeurs “acquired a reputation for being cavalier with servants’ rulebooks”. The warm friendship between Lady Mary and her maid Anna, which becomes so close that Anna gives birth in her employer’s bed, however, does not appear to reflect the experiences of generations of servants who were expected to “know their place”.

The recollections of early 20th-century domestic servants demonstrate that even when they spent years in close proximity with their employers, they were not asked for their opinions. Rosina Harrison, who became lady’s maid to Lady Astor – the first female member of the parliament to take her seat in the United Kingdom – wrote a memoir entitled Rose: My Life in Service. In it, she recalled that when she waited on the daughter of her first employer, “My opinions were never sought or given on her music, on the people we met or on anything that was personal to either of us, nor did I expect it or miss it at the time.” The Dowager Countess of Grantham asking her butler for his opinion in front of her dinner guests would have been notable at a time when servants were expected to fade into the background while their employers conversed with visitors.

In-house relationships: did they happen?

While the fictional Crawleys were supportive of marriages between their servants, including the valet John Bates and the housemaid Anna Smith, and, later in the series, the butler Charles Carson and the housekeeper Elsie Hughes, such relationships were often discouraged by actual early 20th-century employers of servants.

In 1917, Evelyn Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire considered dismissing her lady’s maid Miss Stiles because the maid was in a relationship with the Duke of Devonshire’s valet, Mr Taylor. The Duchess of Devonshire wrote to her mother-in-law: “We feel sure they are living together. It is a bad example in the house even if the worst has not happened.”

If the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire had been resident in the United Kingdom at the time, Taylor and Stiles would likely have been dismissed and replaced by new servants. But the duke was Governor General of Canada from 1916 to 1921, and sending disgraced servants back to Britain and arranging for the transatlantic passage of new British servants was not practical during the First World War. As Dorothy Anne Philips writes in Victor and Evie: British Aristocrats in Wartime Rideau Hall, “As far as we know, both Stiles and Taylor stayed on.”

While the fictional Crawleys were supportive of marriages between their servants, such relationships were often discouraged by actual early 20th-century employers

Relationships between servants and potential partners outside the houses where they were worked were also discouraged by their employers. In her 1975 analysis of 20 accounts of domestic service by women who were servants between the First and Second World Wars, historian Pam Taylor quoted a 1930s kitchen maid who observed: “It seems natural to the mistress that her daughter should have boyfriends and invite them to the house, but of course, we are only maids, and everyone immediately thinks our boyfriends have dishonest intentions.” The degree of concern that the Crawleys demonstrate for the personal fulfilment of their servants throughout Downton Abbey is unusual for the time that the series is set.

The reminiscences of former domestic servants suggest that even the potential for friendship and sociability within the servants’ hall was shaped by the hierarchy that existed below stairs. Margaret Powell, who wrote about her experiences as a teenaged kitchen maid in the 1920s in her memoir, Below Stairs, recalled the awkwardness of her first meal in the servants’ hall, stating, “No one bothers to introduce a kitchen maid. You’re just looked at as if you’re something the cat brought in.”

The lively conversations in the Downton Abbey servants’ hall, which bring together ladies’ maids, footmen, kitchen maids and sometimes the butler, housekeeper and cook do not necessarily reflect the experiences of most servants in large houses. The potential opportunities for lasting friendships were limited even below stairs.

A modern view?

Historians analysing the treatment of social class in Downton Abbey have concluded that the close friendships and relationships between members of the Crawley family and their servants are in keeping with the expectations of modern audiences, particularly in the United States, rather than the usual attitudes of the landed aristocracy in early 20th-century Britain.

In Exploring Downton Abbey: Critical Essays, edited by Scott F Stoddart, Stoddart and Michael Samuel observe: “The way that series intertwines the upstairs family with the downstairs crowd becomes a hallmark of the series, perhaps the most obliging nod to American audiences who do not always understand separation based on class and service.” Nicoletta F Gullace analyses the “progressive plutocracy” of Downton Abbey, concluding that: “While the table settings and tapestries of Downton were no doubt meticulously recreated, the euphemistic depiction of class, sexual and religious inequalities seemed remarkably tailored to modern audiences.” Downton Abbey reflects certain aspects of the worldview of 21st-century audiences, shaping the depiction of the social hierarchy more than one hundred years ago.

Actor Maggie Smith in a purple Edwardian gown,, as Dowager Lady Grantham
Maggie Smith as the Dowager Lady Grantham in Downton Abbey. (Image by Alamy)

The outbreak of the First World War created a wider range of career opportunities for both wealthy women and domestic servants. In Downton Abbey, Cora, Countess of Grantham finds a new purpose in her role managing a convalescent hospital in her home, Lady Edith learns to drive, and Lady Sybil becomes a nurse, experiences shared by historical women of their social class.

Among the younger servants at Downton Abbey, both men and women imagine new possibilities for themselves as both Thomas and Ethel and later Daisy and Molesley consider lives outside domestic service. New business ideas and new opportunities for education are pursued, with varying degrees of success. Within the world of Downton Abbey, however, interdependent relationships between domestic servants and their employers endure long after the war and develop into real friendships. These relationships meet the expectations of modern audiences but are not necessarily representative of the experiences of many domestic servants in the early 20th century.

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Dr Carolyn Harris is an instructor in history at the University of Toronto School of Continuing Studies and the author of three books: Magna Carta and Its Gifts to Canada; Queenship and Revolution in Early Modern Europe: Henrietta Maria and Marie Antoinette and Raising Royalty: 1000 Years of Royal Parenting. She is the co-editor of the forthcoming book series, English Consorts: Power, Influence, Dynasty (Palgrave Macmillan, 2022)