Life Sucked in Edwardian England. So Why Do We Love Period Pieces?

On Downton Abbey, Maggie Smith plays Violet Crawley, the Dowager Countess of Grantham. 

British turn-of-the-century drama Downton Abbey is coming to a close this year, airing the final episode of its sixth season this March. The show about the personal dramas of British aristocrats and servants has been a massive hit, in part because of its many well-crafted female characters who grapple openly with their unequal social, legal, and economic status. As the show airs its final episodes, BBC is hoping to snag some viewers with a new period-piece show, Indian Summers, which follows the personal dramas of British aristocrats and servants in India under colonialism. Sound familiar? Why are so many of us engrossed in stories about the goings-on of rich English people who lived 100 years ago? And how much do these shows wind up glamorizing an era when life was exceedingly difficult for anyone who was not a straight, white, rich male?

I talked with cultural critic s.e. smith about these complicated issues—s.e. is an avid TV-viewer and social justice editor at xoJane.  This conversation was part of our “Nostalgia TV” podcast. You can listen to the conversation or read the full discussion below.

SARAH MIRK: This year on PBS, we’ve got Downtown Abbey, Indian Summers, and also the new show Mercy Street, which is about the American civil war. My question for you is why? Why do audiences love period pieces like these so much?

s.e. smith: I think that's a question with a really complicated answer. One thing, obviously, is our mutual affection for delicious, frothy frocks. Also, there's a sense that we can engage with social issues, both past and present, and it feels more comfortable when we can distance ourselves. So a great example is Indian Summers kind of digs in, at times, on racism, and particularly looking at religious divides, as well. People are very scared of looking at that in a modern context because that kind of cuts too close to home. There also seems to be a bit of nostalgia for days gone past with an almost deliberately cultivated ignorance of the dark sides of that. I mean, with Downton Abbey, in earlier seasons, women didn't even have the right to vote. You have issues like entailment that barred Lady Mary from inheriting her own family estate. So you have kind of all of these social issues that get shoved under the carpet because what you're seeing is the glitz and glamour.

In a lot of ways, these shows can comment on social issues that we're still dealing with today and that have resonated through our history. But because they're set in the past, it feels safer to watch them somehow. What today would feel very political and maybe invasive or heated, instead feels exciting or like, “Ooh, look at this other world in the past.”

Definitely. And I think you can really see that with early seasons of Downton Abbey, which I was super excited about because the show seemed to be taking a very class-war bent by looking at both the upstairs and the downstairs. Which is kind of, I don't know if you watched Julian Fellowes' film Gosford Park, which drew upon a lot of the things that we see in Downton Abbey. That's clearly when he started doing the research that you really see meticulously replicated on PBS for your viewing pleasure. And originally, you saw a lot more of the class tensions—servants wanting to get out of service, for example, which was a very alien concept at the turn of the 20th century. There was kind of an idea that you would inter-generationally work as ladies' maids and servants and butlers. The idea that you might strike out on your own and start working for yourself was really terrifying to a lot of people. And you see the class boundaries breaking down, of course, with the infamous affair with the chauffeur and sort of an examination of issues that we're facing right now as well. But people are more reluctant to engage with contemporary class issues even with things like the fight for minimum wage and Bernie Sanders exploding in the polls.

Michelle Dockery plays the outspoken Lady Mary Crawley on Downtown Abbey.

So you're saying that, in some ways, these important political issues and social issues are something that these shows do explore. But it can get kind of downplayed or overshadowed by all the focus on the glamour of the period and the costumes and the hair and all that. Is that what you're saying?

It definitely can. To rag on Downton Abbey again for a minute, when you look at, for example, the paper doll sets, you're not seeing Daisy and Mrs. Patmore. You're seeing Lady Edith and Lady Mary, right? People dress up for Downton Abbey parties as the people upstairs, not the people downstairs.  You don't see things that would've been common at the time. There wouldn't have been electricity in the servants' quarters, servants were probably using outhouses rather than indoor plumbing, servants were eating the worst cuts of meat and the leftovers. So you're not seeing the really ugly parts of the servants' life. All you really see is the kitchen, which is this kind of bright, idealized version of the comfortable English farm kitchen. Then you see the servants' hall where they kind of dine and have meetings. Then you see the room where they polish the shoes, and that's about it. So you don't get a sense of what their lives were really like except through the lens of the upper class people that they work for. And that's really not an accurate picture of what life was like as a servant at the time.

I think nostalgia plays into the costumes and the hair of these shows in a really interesting way, and one is that I feel like when people watch these shows, one thing that we love is how nicely everybody is dressed. Something I hear over and over and that I think myself is, “Wow, look at how all men wore hats in those days and how the women were dressed to the nines!” I'm curious on your thoughts about the nostalgia for a time when clothing was more both more gendered and fancier. Do you think that plays into our love of these shows?

Oh, totally! And there's very much this nostalgia for wasn't it nice when everybody dressed up, that I also see, for example, with dressing up for airplanes. This used to be a big thing, right? Everyone would wear their fanciest clothes because this is a big adventure. And so we see people talking about wasn't it nice when people dressed up for planes instead of wearing sweat pants and slippers? But what people don't talk about is the sexual harassment that stewardesses experienced, that flight crews were usually all female in the cabin and all male in the cockpit, that women had these ridiculous appearance standards. And so that's really erased in favor of look at the pretty people wearing the pretty things. You don't see the ugly cost there.

That ties into how these super gendered and specific ways of dressing that now we look back and say, “Oh man, that looks so glamorous” in a lot of ways are super confining and what people were rebelling against in future generations our right to wear sweat pants if we want to. You know? And so I think nowadays we can kind of have a rosy view of the past, in part because of these shows, and say, “Oh, wouldn't it be nice if all women dressed up and wore fancy skirts and men wore hats whenever they went outside?” But on the other hand, that's not a world that I want to live in.

Definitely not. There are a lot of highly performative gender norms that go on there that weren't just about clothing, but the clothing kind of reinforced bigger social issues. The most recent airing of Downton Abbey, we have Lady Mary trying to assert herself as the manager of the estate, and we have a farmer saying that he doesn't want to deal with her because, as a woman, she couldn't possibly be the one in charge. As though she's somehow hiding the male manager somewhere behind her, perhaps under the piano or something. And that really ties in to she's a woman, she has to wear these constricting clothes, women behave like this, they do that. And Mary is a very interesting character because she's so rebellious. So even as she's wearing the right clothing and the jewelry and having her hair done just so, she's out having affairs and taking the estate in hand and really trying to assert herself. And she gets a lot of pushback on that.

Julie Walters, center, stars in Indian Summers, a show set in India during the “twilight era of the British Empire.”

Obviously, Edwardian England wasn't a good time to be alive if you're a woman or a person of color or you're poor or you have a disability. Your life would be much more confined than it is today. So how does that tie in to our desire to still see these stories set in this time, a nostalgia for a period on which, honestly, life was pretty bad for people who weren't white rich guys?

Well, it's kind of an ugly thing to say, but it really ties in with a nostalgia for an era in which systems of oppression and dominance were much simpler. And obviously, white viewers get a lot out of this because you don't really have to engage directly with race. And wasn't it nice when white people could just be in charge? And non-disabled people don't have to deal with the discomfort of seeing disabled bodies on the screen. And cis people don't have to see transgender people or to have their notions of gender challenged. And middle and upper class viewers don't really have to deal with poverty. They can push it off into the corner. So you see over and over again rhetoric about well, things used to be simpler in those days. And what people usually mean by that is that in those days, people who looked like them and enjoyed their social status got to be in charge. And dealing with this kind of internalized oppression is a big problem on both sides because of course, a lot of people from more marginalized social groups look at these shows and the huge nostalgia factor and kind of roll their eyes. After I wrote the [Bitch] feature on Indian Summers, I actually got a lovely email from someone who said, “You know, I'm a Hindu woman, and I've been watching everyone go gonzo for this show. And I was waiting for one person, just one person, who is not Hindu and who is white to write a piece that is critical of what this show is really saying about this time.” And it was a really stark reminder that it's kind of easy for all of us to slip into this notion that we really are better than the people that we've been oppressing for centuries.

by Sarah Mirk
View profile »

Sarah Mirk is the former host of Bitch Media’s podcast Popaganda. She’s interested in gender, history, comics, and talking to strangers. You can follow her on Twitter

Get Bitch Media's top 9 reads of the week delivered to your inbox every Saturday morning! Sign up for the Weekly Reader:

3 Comments Have Been Posted

s. e. smith

hiya! just a note: s. e. is not a feminist writer.

Interesting perspective!

Thanks for the essay/transcript. Good reasoning on the essay, but I think that one of the things worth considering as well is that the recent Downton, et al, is only a reboot of the first wave of these costume dramas from the late 60s/early 70s (Upstairs/Downstairs being the best of the lot). Ultimately, I think a lot of the reason of the appeal is the overwhelming nostalgia for the Edwardian period that came in the post-World War II era in the UK. The 1900-1914 period was seen in the light of some seriously rose-colored glasses, as a "more innocent time"--before the bloodbath of the Great War, the Depression and the rise of Fascism, World War II, and the collapse of the British Empire. It seemed simpler, especially to white, predominantly (but not all) male middle and upper middle class Brits, than a complex world of post-colonialism, equal rights and the demise of traditional institutions (from private clubs to the Church of England). The popularity of the first wave of these shows in the late 60s, for good reason, coincided with the gender, sexual, and equal rights revolutions in the West. That is something I don't think Americans get as well as the British do; perhaps a good comparison would be the nostalgia portrayed by the movie American Graffiti in the 1970s--"the good old days" before Vietnam, et al. Of course, if you were a person of color in the South or Southwest, or a working class woman, the late 1950s weren't all that great...

Add new comment