The Earl & Countess of Grantham
Lord Grantham - Robert- has many good qualities: he is kind, loyal to his family, loving to his wife, adoring of his daughters, a fair employer and generous to those around him. But, for him, all these things are 7th peripheral in the face of his most important role in life- as the Earl of Grantham. As he sees it, he has been put on this earth with one prime objective: to keep Downton Abbey in its proper state and hand it over in this condition to his heir. Yet the gods appear to be against him in this enterprise the American heiress he married to safeguard the future of the estate failed to produce the required son and heir; the next in line (a first cousin) was lost on the Titanic, leaving a distant, unknown, middle-class relative-Matthew Crawley-as heir. A brutal war undermined Robert's certainties and prosperity, and now, in the post-war years, he has lost the family fortune in an unwise business venture and faces an uncertain financial future.
Shattered by this recent sequence of events, the mere mention of hiring a new footman is enough to rattle him. Hugh Bonneville, who plays Lord Grantham, explains: 'His purpose is to preserve the estate and hand it on to the next generation. So whenever anything occurs that threatens him and this idea, it sets him off kilter.' For someone as well-meaning as Robert, this situation seems terribly unjust.
It's not all had. The American heiress he married was, of course, Cora -a woman of resilience and unfailing supportiveness. Where Robert is emotionally insecure, she is sure of herself and undaunted by the difficulties they could face. His daughters may not be able to inherit Downton, but his eldest has done the next best thing and become engaged - at last - to the man who will. And that man, Matthew, is someone who Robert has grown to love as a son.
If anything gives Robert an advantage in these shifting times, it is probably his marriage to Cora. Elizabeth McGovern, who plays Cora, the Countess of Grantham, says of her character: 'She finds it much easier to assimilate change than Robert, although whether that is because she is an American or because of her character is debatable. But it is this readiness that places her in the middle between her children and the older generation.
Cora draws Robert into his role as a parent and reminds him that he should mind less about tradition and reputation and more about the happiness of his children. 'Cora is much more able to see Branson as a young man, rather than as a chauffeur,' says McGovern. As a mother, she has a role in life, no matter what else is going on, but being Robert's wife is also very important to her. Cora recognises both her position as countess and the responsibilities that it entails, but also her husband's need for her emotional support. That said, her determination to get stuck into the war effort did mean that she withdrew from her marriage
for a time, leaving Robert feeling isolated.
Furthermore, much of what Robert sees around him, and particularly what he reads about in the newspapers, can only serve to underline his fears that he is becoming an outmoded, defunct element of society .As Britain began to recover its senses after the war, it became clear there was no hope of returning to the way things had been in 1914. In 1920 Devonshire House, one of the most famed places on Piccadilly (the venue for a party for Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee in 1897), was sold by the Duke of Devonshire to a financier. The Duke had been crippled by the debts of his predecessor and the first death duties his family had had to pay, which amounted to around half a million pounds. (The house was later demolished and only the wine cellar and gates remain-the latter form the entrance to Green Park.) The sale of the house marked the end of an era. For Robert it would have been a vivid sign that even the grandest, richest families were not immune to the stringent financial pressures of the post-war world.
One duchess wrote, 'There was a good deal in the Press at the time about the New Poor and the New Rich (the former being admirable and the latter despicable) and the ladies who came to lunch with my mother deplored Modern Times. They said how crippling the taxes were, how dreadful the housing shortage, how expensive the shops, how high the wages, how spoilt the children... ' There was, in short, an atmosphere of difficulty and change. Many were prone to a sort of depression, a lingering dissatisfaction, referred to as 'le cafard'. There was a feeling amongst the landed classes that despite having fought and won a war, and sacrificed so many of their sons, they had no place in their country anymore.
Robert's own small kingdom had been turned upside down by Sybil running off with the chauffeur. He is almost unable to reconcile himself to the fact and has to be reminded by Mary to be nicer to Branson, or the village would dine out on the story for evermore. She herself has caused much worry for her parents, but she seems to have found contentment at last in her engagement to the man she loves, although the matter of the cost of her wedding and where she and Matthew will live is weighing heavily upon Robert. Then there's Edith, who seems destined either to be a spinster or to marry a man for whom she must be more nurse than wife. But Robert admires each of his daughters for their individual merits. 'Despite everything, he does have quite liberal tendencies,' says Bonneville. 'He always makes a token gesture of disapproving of his daughters' decisions. Much as he disapproves of Sybil's methods, he admires her spark. And he secretly approves of them ploughing their own furrows-in Edith's case during the war, literally.'
While all these things would unsettle Robert, they are not the main cause for his concern. More pressingly, Robert is facing the fact that he no longer knows quite how to fulfill his role in life, the one thing of which he had always been so certain. During the war, Robert had learnt for the first time how it felt to be useless-and he didn't bear it well. His uniform, worn proudly during the Boer War, had become lithe more than a costume, each military honour only serving to mock his old age and inadequacy. While his wife and daughters seemed to be busier than ever, genuinely contributing to the war effort, he had nothing to do. And any hope that he could resume his seat of power once the battles were over was soon dashed.
It was this feeling of impotence that led to Lord Grantham's kiss with the maid, Jane, believes Bonneville: 'During the war there was a sense of him losing confidence; of having a dose of the Black Dog. He feels a loss of purpose while Cora and the girls are throwing themselves into war work. His old regiment only want him as a figurehead. And this is what leads to him coming off the rails a bit, morally.' Happily, he gets himself back on track quickly. 'I remember Julian once saying that his default position when writing was that people essentially want to be good,' says Bonneville. ‘They can end up doing bad things, but they rarely start with that intention. That is very true of Robert.' He's fortunate, too, in that he and Cora generally have a loving, intimate marriage, unusually sharing a bed every night. As one peeress of the time wrote: 'In a big house, husband and wife could live their own lives without treading on each other's corns. Intimacy was not considered a necessary ingredient of a happy marriage: there is the story of a girl who remarked, on marrying a dull man, that at least she would never have to sit next to him at dinner again.'
At least if Robert bumped into any of his fellow peers at his London dub he
would have soon realised that his situation was not unique. Almost all members of the aristocracy were feeling the pinch, thanks to massive increases in income tax and death duties (the latter, introduced in 1894 at 8 per cent, had risen to 40 per cent in 1919). Land, the traditional basis of aristocratic wealth, continued to offer poor returns. Agricultural revenues and rents had been declining since the 188os because of cheap imports from around the world, while agricultural wages had risen steadily. The process had been exacerbated by the war. Many small estates went to the wall. The old Landed Gentry was decimated. But even large estates struggled. Many aristocrats decided to sell off some of their land in order to raise money to pay off debts or for investments. The years immediately after the First World War saw land sales on an unprecedented scale. Over a million acres changed hands in 1919 and the following year even this record was surpassed, with vast estates sold off by the Dukes of Leeds, Beaufort, Marlborough, Grafton and Northumberland. The Duke of Norfolk sold some 2.o,ooo acres of his Yorkshire estate.
To lose land meant more than losing face or being embarrassed at having failed where ancestors had not. It meant that one was no longer able to serve the local county as a significant employer and landlord, which was the main purpose of a great house. Robert feels the responsibility keenly- his sense of duty towards his tenants and workers is one of the reasons the state of his financial affairs matters so much. It may also be the reason it is in disarray; benign landlords would not be keen to force rents up and thereby push their tenants into hardship. It is Robert's duty as keeper of the estate that shores up his belief in himself and gives meaning to his relationships: he has a deep respect for Carson, with whom he practically shares the responsibility of the house, and in Bates he believes he has crossed the class divide to achieve real friendship. (Although I am not always convinced that Bates shares this feeling in equal measure.)
Besides land and wealth, the British aristocracy had also traditionally enjoyed prestige and political clout. These, too, however, were being fatally undermined. The power of the House of Lords had been greatly reduced by the Parliament Act of 19II, which abolished the right of the Lords to veto bills passed by the House of Commons. The social prestige of the Lords had been compromised by the massive increase in the number of new peers. Lloyd George, the Prime Minister, an implacable foe of the landed aristocracy - together with his fixer, Maundy Gregory-shamelessly sold off tides to wealthy individuals. The going rate was £10,000 for a knighthood, £30,000 for a baronetcy and £50,000-plus for a peerage. Plutocrats who had made vast fortunes in industry, the City or the Press-and whose wealth now surpassed that of all but the largest landowners were quick to take advantage. The arrival of such 'new men' was a challenge to the old order. Britain might be becoming more meritocratic and more democratic, but these were unsetting changes for Robert to come to terms with.
Cora may not be excited by these changes, but she is quick to react with a positive attitude. As an American, she has a different view of tradition, is less weighed down by the expectations of dead ancestors and is more concerned with ensuring her nearest and dearest are happy than with keeping the ancient roof over their heads. An upbringing surrounded by money has given Cora security and confidence, and having conquered her own realm, on her own terms, she is less frightened by the thought that it could disappear. If she has to do it all again, she will. In fact, she rather relishes the challenge: she, like her daughters Edith and Sybil, found a role for herself during the war and now that it is over, she misses it. When Robert turns to her, she is only too glad to be able to help and regain a more prominent position in her marriage and household. 'She is unbelievably loving and patient with his shortcomings,' says McGovern. 'But then, she is very much in love with him. She fills in the cracks-as we all do with those we love.'
Cora would be glad of the distraction for other reasons. She would have been acutely aware that many of her friends were mourning their sons; one in five aristocrats who went to the war died - a far higher proportion than any other group. (Across the rest of the British forces the ratio was one in eight.) And although the conflict had ended, it was hard not to be haunted by its effects. As the Countess of Fingall recalled, 'I used to think and say during the war that if ever that list of Dead and Wounded could cease, I would never mind anything or grumble at anything again,' she recalled. 'But when the Armistice came at last, we seemed drained of all feeling. One felt nothing. We took up our lives again or tried to take them up. The world we had known was vanished. We hunted again but ghosts rode with us. We sat at table and there were absent faces. ‘There was another, unexpected side-effect of the war. Before, the aristocracy had seemed remote to those of the lower classes, but at the Front they lived side by side in the trenches, while the women worked alongside each other as nurses. Something of the mystique of the aristocracy had been lost. Cora, as an American, is unfazed by this, and perhaps even welcomes the softening of the old rigid hierarchies. But she is also aware of how disturbing such changes must be for Robert.
Like her husband, Cora can draw strength from the fact that she is not alone in her situation. In 188o (some ten years before her marriage to Robert) there had been only four American peeresses in England; by the time of the First World War there were so. What is more, the flavour of English social life was becoming increasingly American and informal, thanks to a new generation of transatlantic hostesses - women such as Elsa Maxwell, Nancy Astor and Emerald Cunard. The first 'Buccaneers' marrying into the British aristocracy had found Society intolerably stuffy, with its rigid hierarchies and formal rules. But in the post-war world, things were beginning to loosen up. Cora- in distant Downton Abbey - might be far removed from Lady Cunard's artistic salon in London, but she would have saluted her fellow American's style and achievement.
The prospect of leaving Downton and taking on a smaller house, while sad, gives
Cora a satisfying occupation. Before the war, her leisure activities were few. Some women were accomplished painters or needle workers, but many others passed time making 'spills'-old letters cut into 2-3-inch lengths then folded, concertina? like, into tapers. They would be held in the fire to take light and used instead of a match. 'It was such a pleasant and peaceful occupation to make unwanted letters into spills and fill the boxes,' recalled Lady Hyde Parker. 'The study and library, and also the boudoir, all had spill boxes on their chimney pieces at Melford.'
The war, of course, also changed fashions for women and the general preoccupation with dressing and changing for every small occasion started to lessen. Cora is elegant and sophisticated, maintaining more length to her hemlines than her daughters, so the costume designer looked for dresses that showed her 'American openness to change, mixed with a certain formality'. For one evening dress, they drew up a design inspired by Lanvin, a 1920s designer whose looks harked back to the eighteenth century. 'We used that idea and created a soft pannier effect with netting over a silk under-dress in a dark cherry colour,' explains Caroline McCall. 'I had a beautiful old beaded chiffon panel which had been found by a textile dealer and had the dress made up to incorporate it.' Robert is more conservative and less responsive to changing fashions, although he would take the lead of his Savile Row tailor. His black tie was made there by Huntsman and doesn't have the narrow waist fashionable in 1920. 'But even so, we've tried to make him move with the times a bit,' says McCall. 'His suits aren't as high fastening as they were. They have three buttons now, rather than four. He sometimes wears soft collars in his country gear, but usually sports a "double round" and "Albany" or, on formal occasions, a "tipped imperial".'
Robert conducts his life at a different pace to those around him, and he is unlikely to speed up in the fast-paced modern world. 'He can afford to have a slower pulse than anyone else,' says Bonneville. 'If you live in a world where the main concern is what you are going to wear for dinner-and you know you will be wearing white tie-you are able to take things more slowly. From the acting point of view, that is one of the key things to hold onto.' The world as Robert knew it in his formative years may be beginning to crumble around him, but he recognises he must try to keep up with the times if he is to live a fulfilling life and support his dependents. With Cora by his side, he has every chance of doing so.
The Chronicles of Downton Abbey: A New Era