One of the most popular period dramas of all time, Downton Abbey is much more than escapist fantasy. While its fashions and lavish interior decorations certainly appeal to viewers, we also can use the series to understand the social, political, and cultural life and values of early twentieth-century Britain: from the Edwardian era through the First World War and the Roaring Twenties. This lecture will explore this period of history, through the lens of this well-known TV series and the 2019 and 2022 Downton Abbey films. How accurately does life at the Abbey reflect gender and class relations, and in particular, the lives of women, both upstairs and downstairs? Other topics include voting rights, the experiences of soldiers on the Western Front and civilians on the Home Front and the first sexual revolution that followed the war, innovations in fashion and technology, and the impact of laws and lingering Victorian mores on certain members of the Downton household.
Downton Abbey has also created its own industry, with products we can consume, tourist attractions, and museum exhibits, so that the TV series has become a part of history itself. Lastly, we’ll discuss why this series has had such international appeal and what it says about the twenty-first century: from the 2008 economic crash, to Brexit, to Americans’ fascination with British royalty.