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A Downton Fan Watches Upstairs, Downstairs Series 2


Series 2 of Upstairs, Downstairs takes place between 1908 and 1910, which is still two years before Downton officially begins. (If you missed the first Upstairs vs Downton post, click here.) James and Elizabeth drive most of the drama in this series, and their boundary pushing correlates nicely with events from Series 2 of Downton. [Cast photo courtesy of Upstairs, Downstairs Webpages]

James starts off Series 2 by continuing his affair with Sarah. At this point, Sarah has moved on from domestic service and 165 Eaton into Vaudeville. At this point in time, actresses are still far from acceptability. He also blows his allowance on gambling and alcohol and parties so hard that he misses regimental appointments. The relationship ends with Sarah’s pregnancy and James forcibly reassigned to an army outpost in India. Their relationship has only an uneven similarity with Sybil and Branson. World War I loosened some of the class divisions that were rigidly enforced in the pre war period.

In addition, gender disparities factor heavily into the comparison. Unmarried upper class men had lovers of lower social rank, but marriages and illegitimate children were out of the question. Leaked scandals showed a lack of self control, a disregard for society’s standards, and a lack of discretion. On the other hand, Sybil’s relationship placed her in much greater danger of a damaged reputation. Society placed a much higher value on the virginity of upper class women. A successful marriage to a suitable gentleman was incredibly important. Marrying well ensured the birth of more male heirs and passage of money and/or property to the next generation. Sybil in series 2 told Branson they can only kiss until their marriage was finalized. Between the lines, it is safe to assume Sybil wanted more but played it safe.

James ends the season with another class bending relationship. While he was in India, he met and then got engaged to Phyllis, an army pensioner’s daughter. His match was approved because a marriage would ensure he stayed out of trouble. In the Edwardian Era, service in the colonies via the military, colonial government, or private companies served as an opportunity for the working and middle class to gain money and influence. This trend created tension when colonial elites returned to England expecting the same elevated treatment they had in the colonies from the hereditary elite.

Elizabeth matched her brother in scandal quite well. Her marriage to Lawrence Kirbridge started off well, but went downhill quickly after the honeymoon. She went into the marriage with unrealistic expectations and it did not end well. After feeling that Lawrence was not performing his marital duties, she had an affair which resulted in the birth of an illegitimate daughter. She moved out and returned to 165 Eaton. Once she moved back home, she joins a group of women engaging in forceful protests for women’s voting rights. The servant’s quarters at 165 Eaton became a base of an operation to vandalize the home of a rich man who refused to support their cause. Rose tried to stop her but both of them are arrested. A rich social climber named Julius Karekin found Elizabeth’s purse at the scene and paid her fine. In exchange for working to release Rose, Elizabeth agrees to become his mistress. The season ends with her trying to break things off with Karekin because he refuses to give up his philandering ways. 

Although Elizabeth and Mary live with the short end of the stick with romantic scandals, damaged reputations, the threat of public knowledge is much more real for Mary. Elizabeth has help from Rose and the rest of the household. In terms of politics, Elizabeth and Sybil have similar ideologies but Elizabeth is much more haphazard with her actions. She appears to engage of rebellion for rebellion’s sake. If Karekin wasn’t there to bail her out, she would be out of sorts with the seasoned suffragettes happy to go down for the cause. Sybil’s work as a nurse show she’s ready to reject her pampered life for a middle class one with Branson. 

Karekin and Matthew represent the growing tension between the established elites and men who have made their fortunes through business and other means. Although some may look down at Matthew because he his a lawyer, he is in a better position because of his family connections. Karekin grew up in Armenia and can only use his cash to gain power and a title. If we knew more about Cora’s motivations when she married Robert, an additional comparison could be made with outsiders attempting to assimilate into the British upper class.   

Overall, Series 2 of Upstairs, Downstairs combines an account of every day life with drama and scandal. The plots not analyzed here due to incompatibility were just as interesting as what was included. I look forward to Series 3 for the plot as well as how historical events are portrayed.

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