The new Edwardian-era period drama Downton Abbey begins on Masterpiece Classic on Sunday January 9th on PBS. This four-part series was a huge hit when it aired in the UK last Fall, and I am all anticipation of the North American reaction. You can read my preview of the series including photos, complete cast and episode summaries, and the first part of this cast introduction on the upstairs characters. Visit our Downton Abbey Archive for the links.
A grand manor house such as Downton Abbey required an enormous staff to maintain its family the Earl and Countess of Grantham and their three unmarried daughters Mary, Edith and Sybil. We meet only eleven of the staff personally during the series but one assumes there would have been ten times that number to maintain such a grand manor house in 1912.
Here is the second half of my post on the characters in the series. Be forewarned that there are some slight spoilers.
As the butler of a grand manor house like Downton Abbey, Mr. Carson is the senior male domestic servant and shares the management of the house with the housekeeper. He is in charge of the pantry, wine cellar, dining room, silver, kitchen and the male staff who report to him. Butlering is a time honored position in the hierarchy of service to a great family estate like Downton, and Carson wears his mantle with pride and dignity. Like other household servants, butlers were required to remain single and focused entirely on the family that they were serving. Carson has worked at Downton since he was a boy and compares events and actions against the high standards that he has known in the past. Because of his longstanding relationship with the family his allegiance is to Violet, the Dowager Countess and not with his current mistress Cora. Ironically, he supports their desire to break the entail for Lady Mary even though it is against the norm and not in line with tradition.
As housekeeper of Downton Abbey, Mrs. Hughes shares the responsibility of the smooth running of this large household with the butler Mr. Carson. She manages the appearance of the house, the female servants under her change, the laundry and the household accounts. She reports directly to the Countess of Grantham and works with her to plan the family calendar, weekly menus and guest visits. She has remained unmarried, but is given the distinction of Mrs. in honor of her position. Kind and fair, she is also strict with her staff ruling by fear as a hard task-master expecting standards to be upheld. As she reaches middle age, she reflects upon her career choice and the loss of marriage and family. She often is at odds with the cook Mrs. Patmore, but is a confidant to Mr. Carson and respects his advice.
They say an army marches on its stomach, and at times from the varied dishes and mass amount of food served at Downton that Mrs. Patmore is cooking for a legion and not just the Crawley family and the servants. As cook in a stately home she is in charge of the kitchen and the kitchen staff. She reports directly to Mr. Carson but resents that he has authority over her decisions in the kitchen, and the fact that Mrs. Hughes manages HER larder. Mrs. Patmore knows her worth as an accomplished cook and makes everyone well aware of it. Temperamental and explosive, she is hiding a secret that may jeopardize her position at Downton, taking out her errors on her young kitchenmaid Daisy.
In the servant hierarchy, Bates the valet holds the special position of right hand man to his master the Earl of Grantham and is only accountable to him, not the butler Mr. Carson or any other household staff. He is responsible for his wardrobe, dresses him, and accompanies him when he travels. Mr. Bates arrives at Downton with a history of service to his Lordship as batman (officer’s personal servant) during the Boer War where he has wounded in service. He arrives at Downton to take up his new position with a cane and pronounced limp that he is determined will not affect his duties. Both her Ladyship and the staff are skeptical, but Lord Grantham wants to give him a fair trial. Stoic and fiercely loyal to his master for giving him the opportunity, his only ally within the house is the sympathetic housemaid Anna who he is attracted to, but will not, or cannot enter into anything more than a friendship with.
A lady’s maid to a Countess is a huge responsibility that O’Brien has undertaken with mixed feelings. Among her many duties to her mistress are the maintenance of her wardrobe, helping her dress and styling her hair. To qualify for the position she would have to be well-educated and proficient at needlework. She is the female counterpart of Bates, his Lordships valet. Passive aggressive, O’Brien is all sweetness and flattery to Lady Grantham, ready to disclose all the household gossip, but behind the families back she is malicious and vengeful. Lord Grantham is wary of her, but his wife claims her as a friend. O’Brien agrees to her face but knows full well that being a paid servant does not buy friendship. Bitter over her career choice and condescending to her fellow servants, she commiserates and plots against anyone in her way with the ambitious footman Thomas who are both eager to badmouth the Crawley’s and the staff .
Tall, handsome and imposing, if the image of the first footman is to represent the grandeur of the estate, then Thomas certainly fits the bill. As deputy to the butler his duties range from serving meals, cleaning silver, opening and closing doors, carrying heavy items, or moving furniture for the housemaids to clean behind. The footmen may also double as butler in his absence, and valets, especially for visiting guests as we see Thomas do for the visiting Duke of Crowborough. If egos could be worn as a crown, Thomas would be a King. He is ambitious, underhanded, a liar, and a thief. Bitter because he was not chosen as valet to his Lordship, he plots with O’Brien for the dismissal of Bates. Unscrupulous, when he cannot obtain a better position by his sexual favors, he resorts to blackmail. Tall, dark and arrogant he is Mr. Darcy gone to the devil.
The head housemaid or parlormaid, Anna holds the highest ranking of the lower female servants. Responsible for cleaning main rooms and bedrooms by dusting, changing bed linens, drawing the curtains and sweeping floors, she reports directly to Mrs. Hughes. She also acts as maid to the three Crawley daughters Mary, Edith and Sybil, though they do not seem very appreciative of it. Hardworking, reliable and compassionate, she has improved her station in life from her family’s tenant farmer background. She is an ally of Mr. Bates, and feels deeply for his physical challenges. Determined to understand him more, she unearths his secret, and the reason why he will not act on his feeling for her.
As the under housemaid, Gwen works with Anna in cleaning the main rooms and bedrooms of the house. Grateful for the best job that is open to uneducated daughter of a farm worker, she also has quiet ambition to improve her station by secretly studying to be a secretary by correspondence. Gwen is a bit of rebel so she and Lady Sybil are immediate compatriots. Lady Sybil soon adopts her as her next social project in attempt to help her improve herself and obtain a new job. Their adventure together has a surprising outcome.
The second footman William assists the first footman Thomas in serving at table, opening doors, hauling luggage, polishing silver and shoes and anything else that his easy-going nature can be imposed upon to undertake. He reports directly to Mr. Carson who is stern with him, but most of the abuse comes from Thomas by way of insults and dumping his work on him. He has a crush on Daisy, the kitchen maid, but she only has eyes for Thomas. Raised on a farm, his mother wanted him to go in service in a big house to better himself. William has only ever wanted to work with horses, not serving canapés and champagne to toffs.
In the hierarchy of a large Edwardian household, the lowliest servant is the scullery maid. Daisy is actually one step above that as kitchen maid, but it is debatable if she is treated any better. She reports directly to the cook Mrs. Patmore and can seem to do no right. Wide-eyed with fright half of the time, someone is always screaming her name. The first in the household to rise in the morning, her long day of duties include cleaning and lighting the kitchen stove and household fires, assisting the cook in preparing meals, cleaning the kitchen and all around dogsbody. Raised in a family of eleven children, Daisy now has Mrs. Patmore and all of the downstairs servants to put her in her place. Sweet on Thomas, she has no clue that his tastes run in the opposite direction, while shy William would do anything for her if she would ever notice.
The position of chauffeur in 1912 was a fairly new necessity to the aristocratic class. Automobiles were quickly replacing horse and carriage as the chosen mode of transport, and the replacement of the retiring chauffeur with Branson is a must for the Earl and his family. Branson is responsible for transport the Crawley’s to their daily activities and the maintenance of the fleet of automobiles used for their personal service. He reports directly to the Earl, and is not considered part of the household staff, nor is he part of the outdoor servants either. Branson not only brings chauffeuring expertise to Downton, his political ideologies connect with the Earl’s youngest daughter Sybil, who finds they share a passion for social justice and progressive politics which leads to an adventure that turns dangerous for Lady Sybil and Branson’s position at Downton.
- Visit the Downton Abbey PBS web site
- Read Entertaining Visitors in an English Country House such as Downton Abbey at Jane Austen’s World
- Read in depth articles about Downton Abbey at Enchanted Serenity of Period Films
- Read an Introduction to Downton Abbey at Edwardian Promenade
- Visit our Downton Abbey Archives
Images courtesy Carnival Film & Television Limited © 2010 for MASTERPIECE; text Laurel Ann Nattress, Austenprose.com