Could Downton Abbey just be a secret ploy to make PBS-supporting viewers right-wing? That’s what a British economist argued earlier this year on Fox & Friends, and some left-leaning critics have echoed his thoughts, insisting that the drama punishes women who have sex out of wedlock and servants who aspire beyond their station, while also reassuring viewers that today, we’ve left those pesky 20th-century problems of class, race, and gender inequality behind. Well, it’s getting harder to make that claim. Proper ladies might find themselves shocked — shocked! — at how modern this period drama is getting.
In Downton’s fifth season there’s as much talk as ever about ”change.” It’s 1924, a new Labour prime minister has just been elected, and he’s making a speech on this newfangled radio contraption — called a ”wireless,” though it certainly wasn’t being used to stream dubstep remixes on Spotify. Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) worries that it’s the end times for rich folks and their traditionalist ways. He might be right. Suddenly Edith (Laura Carmichael) is boldly visiting her love child, who’s being raised by kindly farmer Mr. Drewe (Andrew Scarborough) and his wife, and Mary (Michelle Dockery) is joining Lord Gillingham (Tom Cullen) for a weekend getaway that requires certain precautions. The ensuing conversations about who has the right to birth control are so timely, it’s hard to feel smug about how far we’ve come as a society.
Such tiny rebellions aren’t exactly radical, but for the first time they’re fairly public, and it’s nice to watch these tightly laced fuddy-duddies defy convention. There’s great satisfaction in hearing Daisy (Sophie McShera), who’s studying mathematics with the goal of middle-class employment, inform Lord Grantham in full view of his dinner guests that she won’t be his servant forever. Sweet insubordination! But the biggest thrill comes from Violet (Maggie Smith), who nurses a crush on a grizzled Russian man (Rade ?erbed?ija) who flirted with her before she was married. Good heavens! Maybe Violet’s youth wasn’t such a far cry from the Roaring ’20s — though she does go on to claim that when she was Mary’s age, ”a lady was incapable of physical attraction until she was instructed by her mamaw.”
Spoilsports who insist on historical accuracy should rest assured that this really was an era of romantic freedom for women. In light of Lady Mary’s story, the historian Emily Brand recently wrote that after men returned from World War I there was a public ”sexual awakening” in England, with ”sex manuals, novels, public discussion about birth control and increasing attention on the nature of female sexuality.” That’s good news for Downton residents and fans. Beyond the sloggy Mistah Bates! scandal, which still gets too much attention, it’s a relief to find no secret rapes or pregnancy shame (yet) this season. It’s time for these proper ladies to have some proper fun. A-