Like everyone I know, I am caught up in the Downton Abbey swirl. I heard about it late last summer and consumed Season 1 in two short Netflix-crazed weeks. I nearly died from longing between September and the launch of Season 2 last week.
How I love Bates and hate Thomas and O'Brien. How I want to smack Matthew's and Mary's heads together for being such idiots about their obvious (to everyone but them) passion for each other and their inappropriate engagements to Lavinia and Richard Carlisle. How I wish Mrs. Patmore were in charge of my kitchen and Carson in charge of my life.
But layered amid the personal drama, the gripping war saga and the fabulous hats, there is a substantial, pervasive subplot: the emancipation of women in the Western world. The beautifully crafted story is irresistible, more interesting than a documentary on the subject would ever be. The raw, ripping societal changes are mixed with the subtle, shadow-shifting ones:
• The entail related to the Earldom of Grantham endows the title and the estate exclusively to male heirs. The present earl has three daughters. The daughters are entitled to absolutely nothing. A distant cousin is in line to inherit the whole rodeo. Among the family there's an odd mix of frustration and acceptance of the entail practice. You should see the looks my nieces give me when I try to explain it to them.
• The fast escalation of World War I created a near vacuum in the labor pool from the farm to the cities as 5 million+ young men joined the fight. Women took their places in factories and farms, including over a million servant-class women employed in munitions plants. Lady Edith served double duty in these areas, both learning to drive and working on a neighboring farm. (Sidebar: My only issue with the start of Season 2 is Edith's personality makeover. What is behind her morphing from wretched to reasonably likable?)
• The invention of the typewriter showed the relationship between technological change and social change. The rapid spread of the typewriter in business fueled the equally rapid spread of the role of female secretaries, as so charmingly depicted in the story of Gwen, Downton housemaid, and her dream of an office job.
• Sybil daringly chose trousers over the elaborate, restrictive dresses her sisters wore. Well, they're not really trousers. They are more like harem pants and I can't say they did anything for her, outside of saving her at least an hour a day of getting laced up, wrapped, cinched, and otherwise stuffed into the ensemble of the day assisted by at least one lady's maid. The time required to dress and undress at that time is unimaginable. One of my favorite points of proof: Lady Cora was directing various family members and servants to perform tasks in readiness for dinner. Her job? "I shall take off my hat," implying that it was at least as time-consuming as the assignments the others were undertaking.
Samuel Hynes wrote of Downton Abbey's Edwardian era, "It was a leisurely time when women wore picture hats and did not vote, when the rich were not ashamed to live conspicuously." Just as conspicuous is the certainty that the lives of the Downton women are shifting, sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly, never to return to the old ways. It's an important history lesson brought to life on Sunday nights, disguised as a brilliant soap opera about love, war and fashion.