According to a new study, the popular PBS series blends contemporary attitudes with historical truths.

Downton Abbey—the popular period drama that ran on PBS for six seasons—is often cited for its meticulous attention to historical detail. Costume designers scoured flea markets for historically accurate fabrics. The characters discuss and experience archival events, some of which are widely known (the Titanic) and some that only ring a faint bell from high school history class (the Teapot Dome Scandal).

But a new scholarly article finds that Downton Abbey isn’t entirely realistic. Instead, the show “airbrushes” some aspects of the time period that modern audiences would otherwise find distasteful, writes author Nicoletta F. Gullace. Such simplifying of events and attitudes makes the show more palatable but also prompts viewers to dive in and learn more about early 20th century England. Discover four major ways that Downton Abbey differed from real-life events, below, then impress your friends with the facts when the official film is released September 20.

Downton Abbey PBS characters
Image courtesy IMDB

1. The aristocracy would almost certainly not be friendly with the help.

Although Downton Abbey showcases some inequalities, there are still plenty of examples of friendship and intimacy between characters of different socioeconomic classes. Gullace cites Lady Mary’s intimate relationship with her maid Anna and the family’s loyalty to the valet Mr. Bates during his trial as highly unlikely interactions. These relationships paint a picture of progressive sensibility into a rigid class system.

2. The Crawley family is unexpectedly forward-thinking.

Despite appearing as conservative members of the Edwardian aristocracy, the Crawleys show some out-of-place progressive traits. Prior to the Holocaust, anti-Semitism was rampant in England; Jews from Russia fled the pogroms and landed in England (and elsewhere) in large numbers, which coincided with the formation of anti-Semitic groups. Yet Lady Rose marries Atticus, a Jewish man, with very little outcry from any of the Crawleys. Plus, the show manifests a modern view of religion: Lady Rose's children are to be raised knowing both the Jewish and Anglican religions.

3. The staff members are happy with their positions.

Have you ever noticed how complacent the staff at the Crawley estate seem to be? Gullace says the show embellishes the servants as respecting and valuing their position in the house as well as sharing the Tory political values of the Crawleys. “While minor characters seek small hierarchically non-threatening mobilities like a typing job, a teaching certificate or a promotion to cook, only the villains [the “ungrateful” servants like Thomas and O’Brien] dwell upon their servile position, allowing viewers to feel that master-servant relations are symbiotic and just,” writes Gullace.

4. The family allows surprising marriages.

Let’s take the case of Branson, the Irish nationalist chauffeur. Downton Abbey takes place during a pivotal point in Irish-English relations, with the Irish war of independence, the formation of the IRA, and attacks launched on England. Sybil’s romance with Branson is initially met with some resistance, says Gullace, but is eventually accepted. Branson is even entrusted with the management of the estate—not something that the English aristocracy would have likely extended to someone who was part of an opposing organization.


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