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Q&A: The Manners of Downton Abbey, Then and Now Hero Label

Q&A: The Manners of Downton Abbey, Then and Now

photo: British royal summer home sitting on the waters edge

Anna Post joined Vermont PBS for an on-air pledge drive Q&A about the difference between our manners and those of Downton Abbey during an airing of the special The Manners of Downton Abbey. Here is a greatly expanded version of the questions and answers she covered live, as well as many there wasn't time for.

Spoiler alert!

This Q&A references events through season five of Downton Abbey and from the special The Manners of Downton Abbey.

Q: You are the great-great-granddaughter of Emily Post, the American authority on manners. She was writing about etiquette back in 1922—how did she fit into Downton? Would Cora have had her books?

A: I doubt it, though that would have been neat! Etiquette was first published in 1922 and the show is in 1924, right now, I think. While Emily was by then famous, in the style of the dowager, I doubt the Brits were looking to American authorities on etiquette. But interestingly, if Emily were to have made a Downton cameo, by my math she and Cora would have been roughly the same age. Who knows—maybe they could have known each other back in the States!

Q: Posture and body language are mentioned early on. Is it really so different now?

A: Well, yes and no. I think many parents—mine included—still try to instill good posture in their children, and I have to say, I think everyone looks better when they sit or stand up straight. However, I was shocked to hear nannies put knives on chair backs to keep children sitting upright! Happily, some manners—or lessons for them—change with time. Because that’s nuts.

For body language, it’s true that you were supposed to be as composed as possible, meaning not fidgeting, or being very expressive with your hands. It was also considered good manners to keep your hands below your shoulders—the real result being you weren’t touching your eyes, nose, mouth, etc., with your hands. Today, it’s perfectly okay to be expressive with your gestures, though it’s not a bad idea to avoid touching your face a lot to keep the spread of diseases like flu down. Though that’s more health.

Q: At this year’s WVPT Downton event at the Essex Inn and Resort, you ran a very popular serving utensil quiz using more obscure pieces. Talk about all those spoons that Carson and Alfred are looking at.

A: The Victorians and Edwardians sure did love their silverware! They had a piece for everything. Similar to highly specialized and elaborate dress, it was another way to show wealth, because not only did you need to buy all that silver, you needed someone to cook dishes for it, and someone to polish it, and you yourself needed to know how to use it. “No, not a soup spoon, use a bouillon spoon! Duh!” They had something for everything. The interesting thing is, while no one really needs all this, the tools they created were actually geared to each specific use—they each really did have a purpose. Tomato spoons were wide and flat with holes in them to let the tomato slices being served drain, for example. While this is about money and class and even artistry, for this era it was also about making the act of eating food in front of another person as elegant and pleasant as possible—the result being nothing awkward or messy to eat.

Q: And then there is the table, which took hours to set. Even breakfasts aren’t casual.

A: No, and that brings up something else: social obligations. If you rsvp’d to a dinner, even a “casual” one in their world, look at all the trouble it took to set it up. There isn’t room to squash another person in, and an empty chair would look really odd. You were really persona non grata if you cancelled at the last minute and messed up that table. “Numbers” at dinner used to be talked about a good bit, and it’s no wonder why when it mattered so much to the table setting. I think it’s worth mentioning that while I fully support including someone extra at the table today, and keeping the focus on enjoying company, we are in an epidemic of failure to rsvp today. Please, remember to rsvp, and short of illness or a real emergency—not finding out your favorite show is on, even Downton—stick to your commitments!

Q: In Downton, it isn’t just the titled family who have rank and status—that happens downstairs, too. We see many different version of how servants were treated—was ignoring a servant really “polite”? What about the public outburst toward the butler in the season finale?

A: For all that it seems rude to have ignored the servants, as our guide on the special says, that was the norm back then. Today, whenever reasonable I like to acknowledge someone helping—a waiter refilling my water at a restaurant, say, or a bellman opening a hotel door—with a smile and a simple, “thanks.”

Emily talked about a bit about servants in her earlier books, though that trails off in later years as life in America shifts away from that by around World War II. What’s the same in both the US and Britain, both then and now, is how you speak to someone who works for you. Everyone is shocked at how Lord Sinderby speaks to his butler in public—very bad form then, very bad form now.

Q: Turning the table is mentioned—was it really that strict?

A: Yes and no. I’m still trying to work this one out myself. We see a number of dinners where everyone talks to each other at the table, and yet in general the idea was that the hostess began by speaking to the person on her right (usually) as they would be the guest of honor or the person of highest rank, and then everyone else paired off down the table. At some point in the meal, she would politely break off and turn to speak to the person on her other side—turning the table. You hear Mary, i think, in one episode, wonder to her conversation partner if they will "ever be allowed to turn." Everyone else, like dominoes, followed suit. The idea was you stuck with your partner of conversation during that time. I have heard elsewhere that it was considered rude to speak across the table. But clearly broader conversation at table happened—it may have been more common in smaller, more intimate, family settings. I’m just not 100% sure on when that was okay, and who lead it off. Happily, we don't have to worry about that today!

Q: Debutantes aren’t something we hear much about, but that still happens, right?

A: Yes, there are still debutante balls, though now it’s more a fun coming-of-age-slash-society thing. Back then, when a debutante had her coming-out, it didn’t mean revealing her sexuality; it meant she literally came out of the social seclusion of the schoolroom at home (and by schoolroom we mean her home where she had a governess or the private boarding school she was sent to) and into the social world. Now she could put her hair up, go to parties, wear more grown-up clothes, and be married. The divide between "out" and "not out" used to be quite important. Her debut was also her formal presentation to society, hence a come-out in England was the biggest deal of all, as for some (there were exceptions) it meant being presented to the monarch, as we saw with Rose. Debutantes were often rated as successful or not, based on their beauty, clothes, and especially behavior.And success meant more attention from wealthy, attractive, and more importantly, eligible suitors. Rose got the absolute gold ring when the Prince of Wales opened her debutante ball in the season five finale (that means he danced the first dance with her). It didn’t—couldn't—get better than that to begin a successful debutante season.

Q: Why wouldn’t it be ok for Mary and Rosamund to clink glasses and say cheers?

A: Well, as we’ve seen over several seasons, the cocktail was pretty new. It was probably considered vulgar for women to clink glasses the way men in a pub might bash tankards of ale. Just a guess though. I’ve heard that the tradition of clinking glasses, by the way, came from Norse or northern European cultures way back when where your goblet was smashed against someone else’s so that some of your wine or mead or ale or whatever would slop into the next guy’s—thus insuring mutual death if anyone had poisoned anyone else. It was a safety measure.

Similarly, have you ever heard it’s rude to pour wine backhanded? I learned in Italy that this is considered rude because long ago—maybe a Medici, I don’t know—might have had a little poison in their ring, which would—plop!—drop open and discreetly deposit poison into a glass if poured backhand. Think about that next time you pour wine!

Q: So it turns out the stiff-upper-lipped British are a product of the French Revolution.

A: I’d never heard this before, but it makes perfect sense! Doesn’t mean the result was fun to live with—all that repressed emotion—but it’s fascinating the ripples that historic events can have on manners. I’ve also heard that Victorian manners were a product of Victoria needing to set a high moral standard (which we just heard a bit about) in the wake of the reigns of her uncles George IV and William II. They were the very licentious sons of George III, and caused a lot of scandals. Supposedly, there was fear that England might not want a monarchy anymore if they didn’t get their act together. So Victoria rose to that challenge. That’s one version of events, anyway.

Q: So Edith not wearing gloves turns out to have some serious consequences!

A: It’s funny, while that was, I am sure, true (Emily also lists many rules about the wearing of gloves and hats, etc.), the fact that she was alone in a man’s home was a way bigger no-no than that she didn’t have her gloves on! Let’s put this in perspective! Even Emily Post said in 1922 that "it goes without saying" that a young woman wouldn’t visit a man alone. Apparently it needed just enough saying to say it went without saying!

Q: It seems strange to day, even in this age of social media and over-sharing, to behave so privately and speak so freely in front of servants. They heard everything, and knew all the secrets, as we saw in the finale.

A: Yes, it is strange to think how presumptuous that attitude was. It was both a trust thing, as Anna says, but also, I think disrespectful, as though these people, who are right there, don’t exist. Very complex relationship. Though I must say, if Lady Mary’s secret about Pamuk came out in today’s world, that would probably still be a huge scandal.So not everything has changed. Though I think it wouldn't have resulted today in the “social death” they feared, and I certainly hope she would have gotten some counseling.

Q: Could Bates really not have just been honest with Lord Grantham about his situation, his desperation? Robert clearly owed him a debt from their time in the war, so wouldn’t he understand?

A: Probably not. This was before the age of talk shows and tell-all exposés. There were so many limits on what you might say to other people—it was much more private. The best example of this I have comes from an old radio show of Emily’s from the 1930—which was wildly popular in the US. I went to the Library of Congress a few years ago and listened to old broadcasts. (By the way, she had that old American upper-class accent. Not Katherine Hepburn, but more like Maureen O'Hara in Miracle on 34th Street. I’ve always wondered if Elizabeth McGovern or Shirley McLain ever considered doing an accent, as Americans back then would have sounded different to us than today.) Anyway, one of the shows I heard was a young woman asking what to do: An Englishman visiting here had asked her to marry him, and she had said no. He left. Now she wants to write to him to tell him she’s changed her mind. What should she do? (Interesting that she actually calls into Emily’s show to ask.) Here’s the thing: Emily says oh, no, she can’t do that. Not allowed. I was floored! Grandmama! How could you? Talk about a time to speak up. The heartbreak! Julian Fellows, this sounds like the beginning of a great movie. Call me.