Learn how to be mannerly–Downton Abbey style

“The Manners of Downton Abbey: A Masterpiece Special” introduces us to the man behind the manners–Alastair Bruce, the historian and oracle of all things in Edwardian Etiquette. This documentary behind-the-scenes special premieres on PBS Sunday, 4 January 2015 at 10:15 ET on Masterpiece.

Bruce calls “Downton Abbey” a “glory of ritual and grandeur” and “a ballet of strange manners and stiff formality.” Bruce takes us through this secret code as the historical advisor to the cast and crew. The documentary also provides some examples from scenes within the series and comments from the cast including Hugh Bonneville and Joanne Froggatt among others. Bruce reminds us that the Industrial Revolution and the Great War brought many changes to the British aristocracy and the common folk. “Centuries of tradition were all passing away” and those traditions included who to marry, how to eat and what to wear.

The documentary is divided up into sections, each introduced by a shot of a dinner card.

  1. How to Eat
  2. How to Marry
  3. How to Behave
  4. How to Dress
  5. How to Make Money

The Edwardians like to eat sumptuously, Bruce tells us. Remember, they didn’t have air conditioning or central heating and had a lot of walking to do. Dinner was a time to dress up. Dinner was a time to do everything just right and that begins with how the table is set. The dinner service is also well choreographed. Doing it all right is “a statement of moral correctness.”

Anyone who has been watching “Downton Abbey” already knows that with three daughters much fuss is made about who to marry or, sometimes, who not to marry. Bruce informs us that marriage is “seldom about love” and “always about power and land.”

Downstairs, it may be a different matter and yet we see that with the changing times, the young ladies and some of the men are worried about love, even if they must refer to the posh bible, “Burke’s Peerage.” “Burke’s Peerage” is important enough to have made it online. The book was established in 1826 by John Burke. (It currently includes presidential and distinguished families of the US and “the ruling families of Africa and the Middle East and other prominent families worldwide.”

How to behave looks at the “glorious formality of Edwardian life” and the “cool reserve” that has come to characterize the British in comparison to other countries. There are, of course, different rules for servants than for masters and a servant must is “never to burden your master with your problems.”

Those of us who love looking at the clothes won’t be surprised to learn that in dressing, every detail matter, but it might come as a relief to find out that the Edwardian style was impractical and high maintenance. You needed a maid to change and changing clothes was a matter of ritual and one did so several times during the day.

Bruce mentions sumptuary laws–only the nobility could, at one time, wear furs or silk. Then there is etiquette–only married women can wear tiaras.

The matter of making money, enough money to keep a large estate was a problem as the nation entered the Industrial Revolution.  Robert Crawley, Lord of Grantham, has been a poor example of how it’s done. Yet one of the continual themes is gold diggers. Robert Crawley married Cora for her money and went outside of “Burke’s Peerage” in order to save the estate. Mary, as the eldest, must marry well and this is one of the biggest crisis in the series.

Check out the recent CNN story about the five great money lessons from “Downton Abbey”:

  1. Don’t put all your money down on one stock (Don’t put all your eggs in one basket).
  2. Ask for a raise. This lesson comes from downstairs’ Daisy.
  3. Make a will and revise it every now and then. Remember Matthew Crawley?
  4. Know the basics of supply and demand (Although Thomas Barrow should just try to be less self-serving and more generous).
  5. Be an active shareholder (because no one will protect your interests as well as you can).

The Manners of Downton Abbey: A Masterpiece Special” will give you a greater appreciation not only of Downton Abbey, but also of other period dramas. Bruce speaks with authority and makes a nice narrator with a pleasant voice. This is a must-see for fans of both.

Hats and Clothes



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