5 Historically Accurate Details About Downton Abbey (And 5 That Were Pure Fiction)

Every TV show based off a time period takes some liberties with historical accuracy. Downton Abbey got some things correct, but some wrong as well.

Ever since its premiere in 2010, Downton Abbey has established itself has an absolute fan favorite. The period drama surrounding the lives of the British aristocratic Crawley clan and their servants is a wonderful tale. The show provides us with stories of romance, betrayal, loss, and love. All of this enveloped in the talented of an all-star cast, stunning scenery, and a unique soundtrack.

When a series that isn’t set in the 21st-century comes to live, everyone involved should do their best to make sure it respects the period the show is set in. Downton Abbey managed to stay pretty faithful overall, but it also makes some choices that aren’t exactly perfect. With the show’s ending, and a movie on its way, let’s take a look at 5 details from the show that are on point in terms of historical accuracy and 5 that are nothing but pure fiction.

10Accurate: Women Don’t Get To Inherit

Going back to the very first episode of the show, we’re transported to the year 1912. The RMS Titanic has just sunk, and it didn’t just take Kate and Leo down with it. We’re instantly informed that the heir to the Crawley family’s estate, Downton Abbey, was onboard of the ship, where he ultimately met his demise.

Here’s the issue – the Crawley family has only managed to produce daughters. Now, if this all happened in this day in age, this wouldn’t be a problem. However, back in the 20th century, women weren’t allowed to inherit estate or titles because of the entail. In the show, this means that cousin Mathew, and not one of the daughters, would get to inherit everything. While this seems harsh and groundless, it was very much a reality for women of the past. The show accurately depicts the issue of the entail and primogeniture, that truly affected many people, stripping them of their rightful inheritance by birth simply due to their sex.

9Fiction: Servants And Masters Are Way Too Close

Those who tune in every week to watch Downton Abbey, and who will surely line up for its upcoming movie, do it as much for the servants as they do for the Crawley clan. Their storylines are just as compelling, and their relationship with their masters is actually endearing at times.

While that last part is another big reason why the show resonates so much with fans, it’s actually not how it should go down in terms of historical accuracy. The closeness, the advice, the entire relationships we see in general would be considered inappropriate. Plus, servants at the time would be scared to speak to their masters and provide any sort of assurance or advice, in fear that it could lead to them losing their positions.

8Accurate: Racial Tension

The ’20s were an amazing time – before the whole stockmarket ordeal that eventually led to the Great Depression, of course. There was music, drinks, parties, and fashion was at an all-time high. While it’s incredibly easy to get lost in the midst of all the glitz and glam, some things shouldn’t be forgotten, and Downton Abbey does a great job in helping us with that.

When fun-loving, crazy niece Rose McClare begins a relationship with Jack Ross, an African-American jazz musician, she shocks her mother and the entire society alike. This storyline bears to the entire audience the very real issue of racial tension and prejudice that didn’t plague the United States alone. These issues would, unfortunately, drag on for many decades to come.

7Fiction: Carson Putting A Ring On It

Downton Abbey showrunners know everybody loves a good love story, so they made sure to deliver. Everybody went crazy when beloved butler, Carson, proposed to the housekeeper, Mrs. Hughes.  It was sweet and daring, and some tears were definitely shed. However, as much as we wish life in the past went a certain way, it simply didn’t.

The sweet engagement we saw could never happen because back then, housekeepers couldn’t be married. Women who were in this position has to remain Mrs, so as to be told apart from other female employees who ranked below them. If such a situation were to actually take place in the 20th century, it would be enough for either both Carson and Mrs. Hughes to be fired or at least one of them. Harsh, but true.

6Accurate: Born Into Servitude, Die Into Servitude

The world is far from perfect as it is today, but there’s no denying that, in many senses, it’s a whole lot better than it was fifty, one hundred, or two hundred years ago. Whether we’re talking about education or mortality rates, there’s been very significant increases in the quality of life of the population in general.

A good example of this is the fact that, back in the 20th century, people who were born into servitude, had little to no chance of improving their lives. Unless they jumped into a ship bound to America, those who came from families with no money, no prospects, and whose entire life was dedicated to serving others, couldn’t escape the destiny that had befallen their parents and their parents before them. This is a reality made very clear in Downton Abbey.

5Fiction: Mary’s Long Period Of Mourning

There’s not a single heart out there that remained unshattered with the death of Matthew. And while the character’s death alone was enough to send fans running into the closest supermarket to stock up on chocolate ice-cream, his wife’s reaction made for another string of heart-breaking moments.

Lady Mary’s mourning period was extensive, to say the least. The practice of such a long period of mourning over her dead husband, however, would have been completely out of style at the time, mostly due to Queen Victoria’s withdrawal from her duties when she lost her husband. This practice was ultimately perceived as harmful to Britain, and such behavior was abandoned by society as a consequence.

4Accurate: Eclampsia & Death

No one watches Downton Abbey for it’s chipper and fun tone, that’s for sure. The show deals with some pretty grim situations, as was the case of Matthew’s sudden demise. Yet another death that completely shocked fans was that of younger sister Sybil, who tragically passed away after giving birth to a beautiful baby girl.

Sybil is correctly diagnosed with preeclampsia before she goes into labor, but she didn’t want to pursue treatment at a hospital. If preeclampsia isn’t treated correctly, it can lead to eclampsia, which will ultimately lead to death. This is exactly what happened to young Sybil, who choked to death due to seizures, shortly after delivering her first child.

3Fiction: “Get Knotted” & The Likes

A script written for a period piece will never be one hundred percent accurate, and we really can’t blame showrunners for it. Here and there, some expressions that don’t quite fit the time period are bound to make an appearance, but, unless you’re as purist as they come, this is very much forgivable.

Downton Abbey has displayed a couple of such mistakes throughout the show. Good examples are the use of the word “boyfriend” or the expression “get shafted”, which definitely weren’t around in the early 20th century. Furthermore, we once heard William Mason go on about “taking logical pills again”, something that just doesn’t quite seem to fit the show’s context.

2Accurate: Servant’s Dirty Clothes

The life of a servant is the absolute opposite of the life of his or her master. Their job is to clean, cook, and just tidy up in general, so it’s no surprise that they would be looking dirty – and carrying a smell that matches the look. Keeping in mind that Downton Abbey is a TV show, and forcing the actors who play the servants to constantly look and feel dirty, the show does do a good job depicting the differences between social classes.

For the sake of authenticity, it has been revealed that the costumes are never washed. This results in a dirty, worn-out look that speaks for the hard and demanding tasks servants were expected to perform back in the day.

1Fiction: Edith Choosing To Raise Her Child

Having children out of wedlock was an absolute no-no back then, especially for ladies of high social status. If this happened, chances were you’d be shunned by your family and society in general. Once Edith had her affair with Michael Gregson and found out she was pregnant, she decided against abortion but instead opted for giving up the child for adoption.

Smart decision, considering abortions in the early 20th century was less than safe. However, Edith eventually does decide she wants to get her daughter back and raise her herself. This would be impossible back in the day Downton Abbey is set, and would not make for a happy ending, but rather dishonor – unless, of course, the single mother status was acquired to the loss of one’s husband in the war.

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