With the American premier of Downton Abbey, season three, here are five history lessons based on the popular television series provided by Katherine Howe, author and lecturer of American studies at Cornell University. The paperback of Howe’s novel, “The House of Velvet and Glass,” takes place in the same time period and will be released on Jan. 29 by Hyperion/Voice.
The real women behind Cora, Countess of Grantham and her mother, Martha Levinson
Many Gilded Age American families, long on wealth and short on pedigree, attempted to match their daughters with wealthy European aristocrats. One of the most notorious of these matches was the one brokered by Alva Vanderbilt, a socially ambitious belle from Mobile, Ala., who had married into a New York City railroad fortune, for her beautiful only daughter Consuelo. Consuelo was forced to marry Charles Spencer-Churchill, the ninth Duke of Marlborough in 1895, though both were in love with other people, and the New York girl reportedly wept throughout the wedding ceremony. Consuelo had been secretly engaged to another man, and Alva kept her daughter from eloping by locking her in her room. Upon the occasion of the marriage, the Duke was given $2.5 million in railroad stock - the equivalent of about $67 million today. Whereas Cora, Countess of Grantham and her husband Robert, Earl of Grantham, eventually come to love each other, the Duke and Duchess of Marlborough separated in 1906, eventually divorcing in 1921.
America’s own Downton Abbey
Right in the heart of the Back Bay stands a complete, untouched Gilded Age townhouse, operating now as the Gibson House museum. Completed in 1860, the house was bought by Catherine Gibson, and was one of the first purchased by a woman in the “new land,” the neighborhood created by filling in the marshes on the south side of the Public Garden. Inherited by flamboyant man-about-town Charlie Gibson in the 1930s, the house remained a perfect snapshot of Victorian Boston all through the changes that convulsed the city in the 1960s and 1970s. Today the walls are still stained with smoke, and Catherine’s gloves still lie in her dresser drawers.
‘The Servant Problem’: Life below stairs in the Downton Abbey years
Read any women’s magazine in the 1910s and 1920s and you will find endless handwringing about the so-called “servant problem.” Why, American society women bemoaned, was good help so hard to find? The answer lies partly in the terminology. In Britain society women had “servants,” but in the United States society women had “help,” a crucial distinction in that most women working in service in the early 20th Century United States resented having to do so. “Help” implies a temporary job done at will, rather than the more entrenched social hierarchy implied by the word “servant.”
Sex, drugs and Ragtime
Not everyone lived an elegant and high society life in the 1910s and 1920s. During this period centers of vice flourished in American cities like Boston and New York, particularly after the Harrison and Volstead Acts limited the legal sale of narcotics and alcohol. Whorehouses, opium dens, speakeasies, vaudeville theaters, movie houses - the Progressive era had a rollicking underbelly of vice.
Celebrity gossip, 1910s style
Think celebrity gossip rags are a new invention? Think again. The 1910s and 1920s had just as much of a gossip press as we do today, right down to the use of blind items and paying informants for exclusive scoops. In fact, it was a celebrity gossip rag called Town Topics that broke the news of Edith Wharton’s husband Teddy’s philandering with a showgirl. High society may have preferred that one’s name appear in the papers only three times: at birth, at marriage, and at death. But that’s a tough line to toe in the age of gossip.