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10 years of Downton Abbey

What insights can period dramas give us into the past?

It has been ten years since I experienced my historical awakening. That’s right – on this day in 2010, the first episode of ITV’s grandiose period drama Downton Abbey made its debut.

I’m not ashamed to admit that Downton Abbey, which begins in 1912 with the sinking of the Titanic and concludes six seasons later in the middle of the Roaring 20s, has played a huge role in my academic pursuit of history. I had always been vaguely interested in history and it was one of the few subjects I did well in at school, but it was those Sunday nights when I sat down to watch Downton that my historical curiosity was truly ignited.

Downton Abbey follows the lives of the aristocratic Crawley family and their servants through love, war, and loss between 1912-1926.

Thanks to Downton, this began with a fascination of all things related to the First World War. I have since expanded my historical interests, but we all have to start somewhere. I went on to study history at Exeter University and undertook a master’s degree in modern history at St Andrews, and yet after all the teachings of academic rigour that have been drilled into me, my fondness for that rose-tinted drama persists.

People are yearning for cultural access to our past

After the success of Downton Abbey, a wave of historical dramas were commissioned, covering everything from the infamous gangs of Birmingham to nineteenth-century lesbians. They’ve certainly made a welcome addition to my autumnal TV schedule, and it seems TV viewers can’t get enough of them either. But the popularity of this genre suggests more than just escapism: people are yearning for cultural access to our past. Shows like Downton are often criticised for their cavalier approach to accuracy, but does historical fiction really have a duty to portray the events of the past “accurately”?

Double winner of the Man Booker Prize Hilary Mantel doesn’t seem to think so. In an episode of the BBC’s Reith lectures, Mantel argues that historical fiction is “a conservative nostalgic platform … embellishing perceived events” but that “real history” is “messy, dubious arguments that never end.” Who wants to watch that? Obviously, as she goes on to write “the archive remains secure: the novelists do not destroy history, the novelist [or screenwriter] offers a version of the past of which there are many.” Nobody is replacing History curriculums with the BBC’s adaptation of Wolf Hall or the box set of Band of Brothers – whatever you might have read about lessons getting dumbed down.

Peaky Blinders follows the criminal activities of one of Birmingham’s most real-life infamous gangs. (Photo credit: BBC)

Period dramas owe us nothing other than escapist entertainment

And so, according to Mantel, if we are reading historical fiction or watching glitzy costume dramas in lieu of a history lesson, then we only have ourselves to blame. For example, many popular shows – Downtown Abbey included – are guilty of reductionist and paternalistic portrayals of the relationship between “upstairs” and “downstairs”, often depicting class relations and experiences as existing in a vacuum. Downton is filled with plotlines of servants scheming with their masters, rescuing lords and ladies from burning buildings, or helping each other conceal secret liaisons – all for the drama. In reality, the dynamic between the elite and their household staff was not as interactive as implied on screen, and fiction of a similar setting to Downton Abbey, Upstairs Downstairs, and Victoria often minimises the complexity of the British class system in the period of domestic service.

We all know historical fiction isn’t perfect, but neither is “real history” a perfect representation of what happened in the past. Historical fiction can plug some important gaps that the archive misses out. One brilliant example of this was 2019’s Gentleman Jack, which brought the elusive coded diaries of Anne Lister – a nineteenth-century landowner often considered to be history’s “first modern lesbian” – to life. It was a great public service for Gentleman Jack to bring this extraordinary historical figure to the attention of the wider public and share a relatively obscured history beyond the realm of academia.

Such forms of fiction are therefore useful in their examination of the lives of whom “traditional” contemporary sources reveal little about. For example, until the twentieth century at least, most history was chronicled by university-educated men, and so it is hardly surprising that so much of it overlooked the lived experiences of those who were disenfranchised, including women and the working classes. Historical fiction is therefore a valuable tool to fill in the blanks and encourage public interest in underrepresented histories. Nevertheless, period dramas owe us nothing other than escapist entertainment; the onus is on us – as consumers of this fiction – to undertake our own research to better understand the past.

Gentleman Jack follows the life and love affairs of the nineteenth-century landowner Anne Lister (R). Much of the show’s plot is based on entries from Lister’s diaries which were originally written in code. (Photo credit: Jay Brooks)

In these tumultuous times it is a particular comfort to “go back in time” to a romanticised version of the past, when life was – rightly or wrongly – deemed by many to be “simpler”. And if such forms of entertainment help to inspire future generations of historians, then who are we to criticise? Academic historians know to take this fiction with a pinch of salt; we are taught to evaluate our sources critically, after all. So, give me all the costume dramas you’ve got – I’ll take them any day over another yawn-fest police drama, unless it’s set in Victorian Britain of course.

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