Everyone goes down the aisle with half the story hidden. ~Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham
And so the season finale of Downton Abbey takes place this weekend. As a big fan of the TV series, I thought it would be fun to look at the lives of the characters in “Downton Abbey“, the aristocracy and their army of servants, from a paleo perspective.
Even though they had never heard of the word, the early 20th century English were arguably more paleo than our society is today. Even with their formal manners, restrictive clothing and complicated hierarchical social boundaries.
I thought I’d examine what was paleo about their lifestyles and what wasn’t. In this award season, I even nominate The Most Paleo Downton Abbey Character and give the whole series paleo marks out of ten.
There are no spoilers as long as you’re up to date with Season 3 in the US, but if you not completely sure, bookmark this page and come back later when you’ve watched to the end of the show.
This post is a long one, as apparently I can’t write short (but, oh, I did have such fun writing this :-)), so grab yourself a cup of tea and a paleo scone, and sit back and relax while you read on to the end. Oh, and don’t forget to share, because sharing is classy and that’s what “Downton” is all about – class.
Was Downton Abbey paleo?
A large stately home like Downton Abbey would have had its own home farm. Meat would have been largely grass-fed, and not treated like it is today. Vegetables would have been home-grown and picked to order based on menus drawn up by the lady of the house and her cook, in this case, Cora, Lady Grantham, and Mrs. Patmore.
Grand dinners “upstairs” were showpieces, designed to demonstrate power and wealth to visiting gentry and other aristocracy. Typical dinner menus included dishes such as chicken with oysters, curried pheasant, roasted grouse, braised veal, kidneys, chives and bacon, leg of lamb, fillets of rabbit, roast pigeon. Eggs, bacon, kedgeree, devilled kidneys were standard fare for breakfast.
Offal wasn’t “offal”
Offal featured far more than it does today. Kidneys, tongue, liver, heart, even brains were all often used in dishes, cold cuts of tongue being a staple for breakfast! But the health properties of relative food stuffs didn’t come into it. Meat was relatively expensive and therefore dominated each dinner as a way to convey wealth and power, the more obscure and fancifully prepared the better, while vegetables, being cheap, did not feature much. You will still see a disdain for vegetables today on the dinner plates of some older Brits.
Everything was made from scratch from consommé to sauces, while tallow would have been rendered and used in cooking along with lard, suet, and butter. Bone broth was another staple and used for everything from soup to gravy as well as a home remedy. As the cook and the kitchen maid, Mrs. Patmore and Daisy had two of the toughest jobs in the house.
There was a fashion for French food at the time, many houses employed French chefs which often caused fireworks, the fiery Gallic temperaments not always mixing well with the more reserved and formal British ones, and Mrs Patmore and her fellow head cooks produced menus in French. It was considered smart and “élégant”.
Sounds quite paleo, huh?
But there would have been dessert, a cheese course with dinner and porridge and toast for breakfast so we can’t say they were paleo stalwarts and of course, there is the enduring tradition of afternoon tea, an anti-paleo bastion of the British culture if ever there was one.
Sandwiches, cake and scones filled gaps during the day as the gentility entertained and waited out the long time between lunch and dinner. There was constant baking going on in the kitchen to keep the stocks of bread, cake and biscuits available to meet the needs of the big house.
The house farm dairy would have provided the milk and dairy products, and it is likely that milk would have been scalded to kill off bacteria although pasteurization was available.
Servants ate carbs for energy
The servants meals would have be more simple and cheaper to produce. Copious amounts of carbohydrate were used to fill working people up and give them bursts of energy to allow them to fulfill their long and arduous house duties.
Pastry, potatoes, bread would have been daily sights on the table in the servants dining room. Pies, stews and casseroles with cheaper cuts of meat were common and there would have been less of it. But they weren’t starved, they needed a good amount of food to provide energy to get their jobs done.
Although in the television show, servants are often portrayed as having their dinner after the main family, the reality was that this would have been so late – 1opm-ish – they would have been exhausted. Most would have gone to bed, leaving Daisy to finish up in the kitchen.
Instead, as Margaret Powell explains in her book, Below Stairs, the servants would have had their main meal before the “upstairs” family, and often had it at lunchtime which is why so many British families, my own included, have their main meal in the middle of the day and still call it “dinner”.
Marriage, sex and the role of women
In The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature, author Matt Ridley delves deep into genetics, evolutionary psychology, sociology and anthropology to make the observation and assertion (among others) that women generally move to their mates tribes in order to raise offspring, that by mixing and recombining genes across generations we beat disease and produce healthier children and re-affirms that women are attracted to power and men to beauty.
So how does Downton Abbey life stack up against that?
Life in 1920’s England was bound up tightly in social expectations, limitations and considerations. Freedom to choose rarely existed beyond minor decision-making.
Personal preference was viewed as an indulgence and venturing outside the norm often meant expulsion from the “tribe” as Ethel, the housemaid who has an illegitimate baby in Season 2, finds out. As my American husband often comments…
“It’s hard work being a Brit.”
Cora, Lady Grantham, is a Buccaneer, one of a wave of eligible American women who came over to Britain in the late 1800’s. Inheritance laws in America meant that, unlike Britain, daughters of wealthy men were very rich indeed. The same wasn’t true in Britain where family wealth passed on to only male heirs.
Intrepid and determined American women (the journey by sea to Britain would have taken around two weeks and often meant leaving their families and friends behind) came in search of an aristocratic husband, a big stately home and “class”. In turn, these men were attracted to the American girls prettiness, fun personalities, and, especially, their wealth.
These marriages weren’t quite arranged, but were often “convenient.” As the writer of Downton Abbey, Julian Fellowes, mentions in the book, The World of Downton Abbey,
By the end of the nineteenth century it had been recognised that on the whole marriages were more successful if the couple got on.
A meeting of needs
During this period, many of the British upper classes had fallen on hard times and needed American money to help them out. The marriage between Cora and Lord Grantham was initially a melding of priorities – her to marry into the upper echelons of British society and gain acceptability; him, to secure a fortune which would allow him to carry on his duty as steward of the estate that had been owned by his family for generations.
Downton Abbey bestowed a position of power on its caretaker and was the major employer and impetus for the thriving of the local community. This responsibility weighs heavily on Grantham as it does for those members of the aristocracy still defending ownership of their family houses today.
Of course, the other main priority for both of them was to produce a male heir to continue on the family ‘business.’ The lack of a male heir is the problem that forms the underpinning of so many of the Downton Abbey plot lines which is why the marriage of Mary and Matthew is so satisfying for everyone concerned. It solves several issues in one fell swoop of a kiss.
Marriage as a career
Marriage provided freedom for women in the 1920’s. For the Grantham daughters, Mary, Sybil and Edith, it offered the chance to control a house of servants, decorate, entertain, establish a position of (social) power…all through the gateway provided by a husband.
Marriage was the early twentieth century version of a career for women, and for them it was an opportunity to finally make choices in their lives, a huge bonus, even though we have trouble recognizing this value compared to the options women have today.
The same was true for lower class women. You’ll notice that most housemaids are young women in Downton. That was because most left to get married by the time they were in their mid-twenties. Women like head housekeeper, Mrs. Hughes (they were called “Mrs.” even though they weren’t), lady’s maid O’Brien and Mrs. Patmore were generally “career servants” and had forsaken the experience of marriage and a family due to the long hours and need to move around between houses to acquire a more senior position. A marriage like the one between Anna and Mr. Bates, two servants in a household, was rare.
Marriage offered the same benefits to lower class women as it did their wealthier counterparts, albeit on a much smaller, far less grand scale and marriages of convenience happened here, too. But it could be a hard life, the poorer you were, the harder it was, and working class women often exchanged one form of servitude for another on marriage.
Sex please, we’re British
Sex was viewed very much a means to an end (to provide offspring) for the upper classes and the formality of the time certainly got in the way of sexual expression. There was lots of chaperoning, awkwardness and longing although once you were married that all changed.
For the lower class, as Margaret Powell describes, sex was a cheap and entertaining way to spend a free Sunday afternoon! Important, if you didn’t have any money and few to other options to amuse yourselves.
There is plenty of evidence to suggest sex was a bonding experience beyond reproduction but affairs were common (Mrs. Simpson, anyone?) and it would seem that primal instincts frequently got the better of the rigid social norms of the time, although Lord Grantham manages to keep his pants on, just about.
Divorce was frowned upon and sex before marriage a complete non-starter, hence the collusion of housemaid Anna and Cora in the first series when Kemal Pamuk dies in Mary’s bedroom.
If this news had got out, the ensuing scandal would not only have killed Mary’s marriage prospects, and hence her whole “career”, but harmed the family’s reputation and her sister’s marriage opportunities as well.
Was it fair? Did it work?
The idea of aristocratic men marrying for money seems contrary to evolutionary arguments, and it would appear that the social structures of the time made life far from paleo in this regard: Access to a fresh gene pool with selection based on wealth for men would initially appear to be an evolutionary aberration.
But when you consider that in the bigger picture women gained access to power, and therefore procurement of better outcomes for their children, as a result of combining resources albeit unequally (hey, I’m sure the men preferred them pretty and wealthy while they were what – neither?) it makes evolutionary sense. There’s no doubt though that relaxing of our social norms has meant we are able to compete for our genetic heritage on a more equal basis, and more in accordance with our instinctive imperatives, than in the period during which Downton Abbey is set.
Pragmatic, practical, primal
The further down the class hierarchy one goes in the early part of the 1900’s, the more ‘primal’ mate selection becomes. Women generally gave up work on marriage and quickly had children, often many of them. Family financial resources were almost entirely dependent on the male and marrying a man who turned out to be unreliable, drunk or abusive was life-threatening for women while a stable, kind young man ‘with prospects’ was a big catch.
The family of farmer’s son, William, would have been over the moon when he entered service as a footman, it would have meant a step up from farm laboring, more money and status for him as they basked in the reflective glory.
Romantic love was important but didn’t feature as much as it does today. Survival, whatever that meant at any level of class, was at stake, although the TV show, for the purpose of a compelling story, glosses over that fact.
How paleo is the Downton Abbey extended tribe?
The answer is “very”. Upstairs and downstairs inhabitants of Downton are completely dependent on one another, as is the estate and the local community. There is a complex and tightly integrated eco-system playing out on the screen. In his book, The Primal Connection, Mark Sisson talks about the importance of the tribe, connecting with people who support us for optimal survival. The complex structure that makes up the life of Downton Abbey with its supporting cast of characters is no different.
Contrary to popular belief, the relationship between master and servant was rarely abusive. Master understood only too clearly how dependent his fortune, power and prestige was on the efficient running of his estate. Conversely, but no less importantly, the servant’s reliance on his job for food, shelter and social identity was obvious. Upsetting this finely balanced relationship did not lead to the best outcomes.
Downton Abbey is a microcosm of socety. It had its own machinery that needed to keep working – its not masters and slaves but had its own order in which everyone depended on each other to keep it going. – Hugh Bonneville, who plays Lord Grantham.
Respect for services rendered, appreciation for the opportunities offered were mostly present. Although jealousy, resentment and sabotage existed, witness O’Brien and footman Thomas and their scheming, generally it was recognized that to upset one’s situation was to risk becoming an outcast with vastly reduced circumstances, or in the case of the gentility, having your weaknesses exposed. The downsides were too great for anyone but the foolhardy or the criminal to risk.
Exercise, what’s that?
The working classes got plenty of exercise during the course of their day while they worked. A majority of the day comprised standing, bending, lifting heavy things. Much of it was hard physical labor compared to what we do today and made for a lot of drudgery in daily life.
The men additionally played sport outside their working hours, local football (soccer), cricket and rugby teams forming a core of solidarity in the communities. Men and women were strong and fit but could get injured which spelled big problems for their future employment and was a big problem for returning soldiers. In the first series, Bates’ injury is considered an impediment to fulfilling his valet duties and it is only Lord Grantham’s intervention that saves him from unemployment.
The least paleo members of society were the women, especially the upper-class women. They were constrained in virtually everything by the social expectations of the time. The clothes, the lack of education, power, the freedom to move around at will, all kept them from expressing their genetic heritage.
The only exercise the Downton girls got were gentle walks, a few bike rides and a some pats of tennis. Nothing was done at full heft because sweating wasn’t lady-like. The only time women could show any degree of aggression was at the hunt – there, on horseback chasing the hounds, they could let go a little. And they would have to do so while riding side-saddle, a major feat in itself.
The men had more opportunities, they could hunt, shoot, play sport while the ladies looked on. It was the very repression of a paleo life that symbolized femininity and class in those days, and they went to great lengths to keep themselves all buttoned up and on their best behavior.
Evolution Downton Abbey style
Time moves on, wars come and go, needs change, expectations broaden. Periods of chaos ensue including political churn, old ways suffer setbacks and new ones sneak in in their place. Roles evolve due to new circumstances.
Through it all, Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham maintains a steady presence and offers insight, often reactionary but sometimes progressive, like an audience member offering asides to her neighbor concerning the goings on on the main stage.
She is an irrepressible snob,
I used to think Mary’s beau was a mésalliance but compared to this he’s positively a Hapsburg,
slow to embrace change,
First electricity, now telephones. Sometimes I feel as if I’m living in an H.G. Wells novel,
and protector and defender of the upper class rulings that form the basis of her family’s power base,
Edith, you are a Lady, not Toad of Toad Hall.
While she’s mostly played for comedy, she has her moments of wisdom and reflection,
Cherish our memories, and the child.
The only way they can conceivably bear their grief is if they bear it together,
and her observations remind us that a tribes’ strength is often concentrated in the matriarchs, their wisdom and connection to all parts of the flowing organism that surrounds them providing them with a perspective often lacking in the energetic younger members who are engaged in pursuits more centrally connected to the furthering of tribal outcomes.
Even though she is a woman, and the social position of women at that time did not favor her views prevailing, her strength of character, intelligence and wit demonstrate how primal attributes can cut across the temporary, artificial expectations of the day.
Modern man survived while the Neanderthals became extinct. Why? Because they developed better tools. Mark Sisson calls it “sharpening your spear” in his list of The 10 Habits of Highly Successful Hunter Gatherers.
Violet’s spears are very sharp. Lacerating. One strike, a look, an ascerbic retort renders the enemy withered, utterly defeated, while her tribe (and world view) prevails.
Don’t be defeatist, dear, it’s very middle class.
And she’s not above conniving and getting dirty when she needs to such as when she makes up details about her new grandson-in-law to make the former chauffeur sound more acceptable to her social circle when Branson marries Sybil. And how she tries to manipulate Cora’s wealthy American mother, Martha Levinson, into providing the cash to keep the Abbey under Grantham’s ownership. She is a warrior! Then she, and her skirts, move swiftly on.
But even she accepts that she alone can’t stem the tide of change in early 20th century Britain, and reluctantly accedes to the pressure showing us that like a jagged rock consistently affected by the water surrounding it over an age, she will, eventually, if not transform herself, at least smooth off her sharp corners. And maybe, on a good day when the sun is shining at just the right angle, she’ll even see a hint of benefit. If she squints.
So, were they more paleo in Downton Abbey times than we are today?
The lower classes were much more physically active than we are and even the upper classes likely more so too, simply because they walked more and sat less. Nutritionally, their food was less processed but did include grains so generally speaking, I’d say it was healthier than our standard diet but not paleo as such.
Socially it was complicated, they certainly had a well-organized tribe but a rigid society structure especially in the upper classes prevented easy and free expression and skewed mate selection. It worked for a time but ultimately, evolution came about as the crisis of war broke down social barriers and provided impetus to a process of balancing power along wealth and gender lines which I think is more paleo in nature.
Paleo marks out of ten
I’m going to give them a 7/10 for their nutrition. Their food did contain grain, especially for the lower classes, but they did eat more offal and they ate unprocessed, good quality meats (compared to today) and other food.
For exercise, they were all over the place. Lower classes score 9/10, maybe even, a ten depending on their work, but the exercise activities of the upper classes especially the women bring down their overall score to 6/10.
Although full of rules, laws and judgements occasionally based on arbitrary decisions of those in power, and financial considerations, the Downton “tribe” was complex and highly-organized. It worked mostly, although it was slow to change and was full of inequalities; it could be brutal for some. So for those reasons, I’d give it a 7/10.
Overall, that gives Downton Abbey an overall paleo score of 6-7/10 in my book.
And the award for the Most Paleo Downton Abbey Character goes to…
No doubt in my mind, Sybil wins. As someone who follows her heart, doesn’t bow to the artifice and convention of the day and is fearless in her pursuit of what she thinks right, I think she most closely follows paleo principles.
Even if others might outstrip her in certain areas, given the rigid expectations of someone in her position she is a warrior for her cause – getting closer to a intuitive lifestyle. Anna would be a close runner-up!
What are your thoughts? Are you a fan of Downton Abbey? Or does it put you to sleep? Who would you give the Most Paleo Downton Abbey Character award to? Tell us in the comments because I would love to know!
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