If you didn’t watch the Downton Abbey Season Five US premier live on PBS, you might not have caught this little gem of a documentary that directly followed it. The Manners of Downton Abbey follows Alastair Bruce, the historical advisor for the series, as he helps the cast navigate every little detail of proper Downton etiquette.
Bruce explains how all the details of manners, dress, etc tells everyone everything they needed to know about who you were and were basically as natural as breathing to the people who lived them. He also notes how difficult it is to get the cast to follow the rules in a natural way, because it goes against all the ways modern people act.
The special is divided into five sections:
How to Eat
The dining room is practically the showcase for etiquette and thus is a perfect place to start.
What’s really great, is how clearly Bruce pays attention to details that are barely even visible in the show. For instance, it was proper etiquette for women to place their gloves on their laps, under their napkin,while they ate. On the show, the actresses are required to do this even though the viewers would never know that they were there.
Bruce even explains the reasoning behind etiquette- for example, no one was ever supposed to let their back touch the back of the chair. Then why should chairs have backs? So the footmen have something to hold! He even mentions that Nannies used to put knives down the back of the chair to train children not to touch them.
He explains that the manners are especially important at dinner because, having said grace, the table becomes the Lord’s table and it is respectful to be on your best manners with all the best dishes and silver and everything because of that.
It turns out that the art department sets the table the same way a butler in Edwardian times would have- using a ruler! Unlike a butler, they use their fingers to touch the silver- for a real dinner, the staff would wear gloves so as to not leave any finger prints.
They don’t leave out the servants- they are taught the footman choreography for serving and the proper way to serve, stand, and look. Amusingly, they point out that, unlike real servants, the actors have to do all the complicated serving while stepping over electrical cords and filming equipment.
How to Marry
This section is less about etiquette and more about the social structure. They emphasise the importance of marriage for women, in that they have no position of their own, only position given to them by their husband’s position.
There is a fun bit about the debutante’s presentation at court which has extremely exact etiquette rules about how long your train could and how many feathers you had to wear in your hair. The presentation to the King and Queen showed that she was available as a suitable wife, so of course, it was incredibly important.
They discuss Burke’s Peerage, the very thick book that lists all the important aristocrats in Britain- this was important for matchmaking to ensure that all suitors were…suitable.
For the servants- generally they didn’t. It was not allowed between servants and they didn’t have much free time in which to meet new people. For a woman, if one did manage to get married, she would be expected to immediately leave her job. Being married also split a servant’s loyalty and servants really worked best if their only loyalty was to their service.
How to Behave
Formality was the building block of the aristocracy during this time, and they feared that if they showed any weakness or lessening of etiquette, the whole system would crumble around them.
However, they point out that the aristocracy is actually fairly rude to those around them- for practical reasons. If you have a servant handing you something thousands of times a day and you had to thank them each time, it would get ridiculous.
The servants themselves prided themselves on being invisible and perfectly discreet. They wanted the family they worked for to be absolutely above reproach because a servant’s status came from the status of who they worked for.
How to Dress
Clothes didn’t escape the Edwardian’s attention to every detail. Clothing was the most obvious example of who you were. Aristocrat’s clothing was incredibly expensive and detailed to show their status. But then within that there are even more rules- only married women are allowed to wear tiaras, for example.
They have an outfit for every activity and setting, you could only do that if you had plenty of leisure time to be constantly changing clothes. They do point out that as the show moves through time and clothing loosens so do the women gain more freedoms (not to mention literally being more free to breathe as corsets became less tight.) Men did not escape the stiffness of their clothes- most modern people can imagine what it might be like to wear a corset, but they don’t realize that men’s formal wear was very stiff and difficult to move in as well.
Hats and gloves all had their own rules as well, of course.
How to Make Money
This isn’t in the show, but the definition of a gentleman (as a job title) was someone who didn’t have to work for a living, they made money from their holdings and investments. This is, of course, one of the key plot points in Downton Abbey, how to maintain this lifestyle in a rapidly changing world.
They also discuss “noblesse oblige” (not in those words) but the idea that the lord of the manor provided jobs for everyone who lived there and it was important to keep up the whole staff of servants because if you decided, hey, I don’t need a valet anymore, that meant that that man was now out of a job.
I thought this was a really great program that does really give a strong and accurate insight into how hard they work to pay attention to those details to bring the audience an authentic experience. I was actually really impressed that they have a person doing this for them full time, but I guess it makes sense since there are so many things to keep track of. Alastair Bruce is an incredibly charming host and there was plenty of behind the scenes action, cast interviews, and hilarious clips from the show (prominently featuring Maggie Smith’s commentary on all things etiquette.) I highly highly recommend it for fans of Downton Abbey and all etiquette buffs.
If you didn’t catch it, you can watch the full thing on the PBS website here.