While millions of fans around the globe continue to be attracted to the plot line of Downton Abbey, the show proved in Episode Two of Season Four this week, that it is much more than mere entertainment. The depiction of Lord Grantham attempting to force an opera star to take her dinner in her own room apart from the other guests and the reference to a sexual assault were jarring incidents that reflected the way life was in Edwardian England of the 1920s.
When a world-recognized opera singer is invited to sing for the guests of Downton Abbey, the butler Carson is faced with the perplexing question of where she should take her dinner. The conservative Carson doesn't bellieve she possessess sufficient social rank to sit at the regular dinner table with the assorted lords and countesses for whom she will perform. When Carson informs Lord Grantham that the opera star will be served her dinner to her alone in her room, the head of Downton Abbey appears irritated and says, "She's costing us a fortune and that will be fine, Carson."
This astonishing banishment of the opera star to her room would be akin to a rock star in modern America or England not being allowed to mingle with fans at an event. Dame Nellie Melba was an Australian-born superstar who had been honored by the Queen of England. She was so famous in Europe and America that Melba toast and Peach Melba were created in her name by famed chef Auguste Escoffier.
That such a superstar would be relegated to her own room during dinner appears astonishing to Americans, but in the rigid class structure of England during Edwardian England it would not be unthinkable that such an embarassing event could occur. Fortunately, Lady Cora saves the day when she chews her husband out for the faux-paus and tells Carson to place Dame Melba at the dinner table beside Lord Grantham.
The more shocking incident to Downton viewers was when popular maid Anna (played by actress Joanne Froggatt) was sexually assaulted by the visiting valet of visiting Lord Gillingham inside the walls of the opulent castle. The sociological implications are clear during 1920s England. What are the options of a rape victim who is a servant?
Anna is ashamed and beaten following the violent encounter and retreats to Mrs. Hughes' room as though the incident was somehow her fault. She persuades the housekeeper Mrs. Hughes to not reveal what happened to her husband Mr. Bates or anyone else. The incident poses the valid question: What rights did lady's maids have in the 1920s? Her future employment prospects would have been dim with her name linked to a rape scandal.
Making her rape public or even reporting it to the police would probably increase the scandal which of course is the worst thing that can happen in the early decades of twentieth century aristocratic society of England.
These two incidents during this one episode demonstrate that Downton Abbey has become much more than a British soap opera. It has become a sort of historical chronicle of social mores of the day.
Even after Dame Melba is safely ensconced beside him at the dinner table, Lord Grantham cannot repress himself from making a snide remark after she compliments the claret wine being served. Impressed by her knowledge of wines, Grantham says that, "This is going to be a lot less uphill than I thought."
Dame Melba smiles, although inwardly she is probably laughing at Lord Grantham.
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