Take heed period drama lovers. Mark your calendars and set your DVR’s. Downton Abbey premiers on Sunday, January 9th on Masterpiece Classic on PBS. This new Edwardian-era series is set in a stately home populated with a huge cast of characters headed by Robert Crawley, the present Earl of Grantham. Leading an idyllic life of a country Lord, the tragic events of April 14, 1912 will change his life and those under his care forever when news of the sinking of the RMS Titanic reaches the household. Among the 1517 people who perished in the luxury liner’s loss were his immediate heir James Crawley and his son Patrick, also his daughter Mary’s fiancé. Since the Earl and his American heiress wife have three daughters and no male heir, their plans for their eldest daughter to marry the heir of succession are asunder and their ordered lives thrown into turmoil. Who will inherit the estate? What will happen to Downton Abbey after their current plans and outside money saved it twenty years ago? Can the entail be broken and Mary be allowed to inherit?
Everyone has their opinion, including many of the downstairs servants who facilitate the privileged lives that the upstairs residents enjoy. Meet the cast of characters that populate this grand manor house, and learn how they fit into this new four-part series which begins on Sunday.
Robert Crawley was born to a life of privilege and wealth. As an English aristocrat, he has inherited Downton Abbey through the line of male succession known as primogeniture, “the right, by law or custom, of the first-born to inherit the entire estate, to the exclusion of younger siblings.” It was established centuries before to ensure estates were kept in tack. When the estate was cash poor in 1889 he married Cora Levisnon, an American heiress whose fortune ensured the future of the estate. Even though it was basically a marriage of convenience, they have grown to love one another deeply. Their marriage contract stipulated that Cora’s fortune, once absorbed into the estate, could not be separated from it. Confident that they would produce a male heir, they instead had three daughters: Mary, Edith and Sybil. Since females cannot inherit, and with the deaths of Robert’s cousins James Crawley and his son Patrick, his first and second in line to succession, the family by law must cede the estate to third cousin once removed Matthew Crawley.
Cora is a Buccaneer, one of the many American heiresses who invaded England in the 1880-90’s in search of a titled Lord to marry. Born to humbler stock, her father Isidore Levinson was a dry goods multi-millionaire from Cincinnati. In 1888, at the age of twenty, she and her mother arrived in London. By the end of her first season she was betrothed to Robert, Viscount Downton, an heir to a great estate. At the insistence of her father-in-law she accepted the clause in her marriage contract confident she would produce a male heir. She did not. Now that Robert’s cousin and heir James Crawley is dead, and the new heir is an even further distant cousin, she does not believe that her father’s fortune should be separated from his granddaughters and be given instead to a complete stranger. With her plans for her daughter Mary to marry Patrick now shattered, she believes that Robert must overturn the marriage settlement, regain her fortune, and break the entail.
Robert’s widowed mother, the Dowager Countess of Grantham, is a traditionalist when it suits her. Proud of her thirty-year contribution to the continued health and success of Downton Abbey, she is fiercely loyal to her son and spitefully disdainful to her American daughter-in-law, the constant reminder of the compromise that the family was forced to make in allowing her son to marry outside their class. Even though she was born the daughter of a baronet and brought little money to her marriage, she still thinks Cora is beneath her, since she is only a merchant’s daughter from the colonies. Ironically, each of the Countesses of Grantham thinks they are superior to the other, causing conflict. In the past, Violet supported her husband’s insistence on Cora’s fortune being absorbed into the estate, but now that the heir and the spare are dead, she does not want to turn Downton over to a complete stranger who is another middle-class nobody. She chooses instead to entice her daughter-in-law into an alliance, to plot together to break the entail.
Beautiful, confident and calculating, Mary is the eldest of the three daughters of the Earl and Countess of Grantham. Raised to privilege, she is her grandmother’s favorite, treating her American mother as an outsider. Engaged to Patrick Crawley, the son of the heir to Downton Abbey, she privately held him “in check” for a bigger fish. She imagined that she would be an heiress like her mother but with her fiancé’s death that will not happen. Her mother’s fortune is tied to the estate, an estate that she cannot inherit unless her father pursues legal recourse and breaks the line of succession. The realization that her status socially and financially are in limbo enrages her, especially when she learns that her father will not fight the entail. Her anger is vented in her rivalry with her younger sister Edith, pitting both sisters against each other over their prospective marriage partners. While Mary is courted by a Duke and other aristocrats, her grandmother Violet and mother Cora see alternate solution to the entail dilemma in her marrying the new heir Matthew Crawley. She thinks him a country bumpkin and a joke, until her reputation is sullied and scandal lowers her vantage.
Being the second sibling in an aristocratic family is always a tenuous position made even more difficult by Edith’s jealousy of her elder sister Mary’s beauty and social position. She resents that every decision in the family revolves around Mary and their desire for her to marry well. But second best always tries harder and Edith uses her ambition to drive a wedge of spite between herself and Mary. She does not care about the entail. She would never have inherited anyway and flaunts the situation over her sister to gain emotional ground in their vindictive pursuit of the best man to marry. Their rivalry escalates after the death of Patrick, the fiancé that Mary didn’t really love, but Edith did. Clever and calculating, Edith sees Mary’s disdain of the new heir Matthew Crawley to her advantage and uses him in revenge, backfiring against her own happy plans with a local wealthy widow whose romantic interest is nipped in the bud by a spiteful older sister.
The youngest daughter, Sybil is given a freer rein while her parents focus on elder sister Mary, the entail and her pursuit of the right mate. If her two elder sisters represent old school expectations for women in the nineteenth-century, then Sybil embodies the modern twentieth-century woman: free thinking, politically active and adventurous. Detached from her family squabbles over the entail, she has absolutely no interest in them either way. The outcome will not affect her or help her social causes. She is smart enough to know to go through the motions of her family expectations while she secretly schemes to help advance one of the parlor maids to a position as secretary, talks politics with the Irish chauffeur and attends political rallies. Reveling in occasionally shocking her family with progressive clothing choices and outspoken views, she exasperates her parents and sends her grandmother into swoons. Even though her life-goals are beyond what her family thinks are proper for a young lady of her breeding, this rebel quietly lets no one stand in her way.
The unexpected heir to Downton Abbey, Matthew is the third cousin once removed of the Earl of Grantham. Young, handsome and unmarried he is a practicing attorney in Manchester who would be a good “catch” to anyone besides the aristocratic family he has been thrown into. Born into the professional middle-class, his father was a doctor which is amazing to his cousin Lord Grantham and offensive to his wife. Violet, the Dowager Countess chooses to not think about him since she is confident that the entail will be broken. Regardless, he is the heir and is invited to move to the estate to learn its management and become part of the community. Reluctantly he agrees, but only if he can continue working at his trade during the week and the estate on the weekend, which prompts the Dowager Countess of Grantham to ask what a weekend is? Ha! Mary thinks he’s an unsophisticated joke, Edith as a possible weapon of revenge and Sybil as an anachronism.
Mrs. Isobel Crawley is Matthew’s widowed mother. Born into a medical family, her father and husband were both doctors and she herself a nurse during the Boer War. Part of the professional middle-class she is a well-educated woman with socially progressive values, entirely different from those of the aristocratic family that her son has been called to join. Like Violet, she is intensely proud of her son and determined that he accept his new social position, boosting his pride by reminding him that they expect him to fail. She agrees to move with him to the estate and manage his household, but on the other hand, thinks he is throwing away a brilliant career. Determined to be useful, she volunteers at the local hospital, which Violet’s late husband endowed and she figuratively oversees. Outspoken and innovative, it is not long before she and Violet are at odds with one another.
The only sibling of the Earl of Grantham, Lady Rosamund married into great wealth, but not an aristocratic seat. Her late husband Marmaduke Painswick was an incredibly successful banker in London, so consumed in his job that his beautiful and sophisticated wife had the freedom to travel and expand her social connections beyond the usual constraints of a woman of her day. This suited her exceedingly, allowing her to do and say what she chose. She has two children, Lavinia, who is married to a landed colonel in the Grenadiers, and Cyril who does something slightly nefarious in the Far East. She is a dutiful sister to Robert, but like her mother, is always eager to speak her mind very decidedly. When Mary visits her aunt in London, Lady Painswicks’s advice borders more towards interference, persuading her niece to make a decision with disastrous results.
- 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
- Visit our Downton Abbey Archive
Images courtesy © Carnival Film & Television Limited 2010 for MASTERPIECE; text Laurel Ann Nattress, Austenprose.com