“Downton Abbey’s” Racial First

Culture Watch
tags: Downton Abbey



Pearl Duncan is a New York writer who writes both fiction and nonfiction. She writes adventure fiction and nonfiction cultural history.


In the most popular period television show about families, specifically, about multigenerational aristocratic family and its staff, how could a writer fit in the black characters? If that television drama is set in the 1920s in Edwardian upper class England, what could the writer do?

Can we have a recurring theme of black characters in a British upper class Edwardian drama, where the main themes are romance, marriage, families, and inheritance? That is the challenge I saw for Julian Fellowes, the creator and writer of the popular television melodrama, “Downton Abbey.”

When he introduced the first black character, Jack Ross, an American jazz musician and love-interest for young, lively, adventuresome, Lady Rose, during Season 4, I knew that the character’s introduction would be about race not about family, even though this is a show about family. In several scenes, Jack Ross spoke to Lady Rose about his mother, what she said, what she taught him, what she told him, but we never saw his mother or any of his family. And there was no mention of his father. So when Lady Mary intervened and nipped the budding romance, we were reminded that the scenes were not only about the attitudes about race but about family. At least they were less about race and more about family. So Jack Ross disappeared from the show, and this year in Season 5, lovely, lively Lady Rose falls in love and marries. She marries a young Jewish man from a wealthy aristocratic family. As in other episodes, in this “Downton” storyline the emphasis is on not only in-groups and out-groups, or class ethnicity, ancestry, prejudice, attitudes, marriage, divorce, and acceptance – but family. The new scenes about the blending of families made me wonder why a black character had appeared in romantic scenes in this television drama as an individual, and not as a member of a family.

Characters, themes and action in “Downton Abbey” are based on historical precedents. The New York Times published a summary of some of the historical parallels. So when I look at the historical parallels of inter-racial romances of the era, I see individuals, not families. “Downton” is about multigenerational families: the aristocratic families living upstairs. The people living downstairs also have families, but they are disconnected from them. So it will be interesting to see if in Season 6, Julian Fellowes solves this shortcoming and gives the housekeeping staff, the downstairs characters and also Jack Ross, the black character, a family.

This is fiction and fiction does not only have to parallel history; it can and should transcend history. But there are parallel historical characters, black Edwardian people, whom the Times did not mention in its summary.

I am fascinated by the first black character in “Downton Abbey,” not only because I am African American, and not only because years ago I did my family’s genealogy and found ancestors who were nobles in Scotland and England who are connected to some of the places featured in “Downton,” but because I see how characters in real history and cultural history change. After I did my genealogy and the results appeared in the news, I was contacted by my ancestral cousins in the House of Lords. Our Scottish ancestors loaned money to other nobles to build and repair this 60,000-acre Scottish Highland Inveraray Castle and stronghold in the 18th and 19th centuries. "Downton Abbey’s” Duneagle Castle – where Lady Rose’s parents, Susan and Hugh MacClare (her father, nicknamed Shrimpie) lived -- is the real-life Inveraray Castle. So I thought Shrimpie and the Duneagle family would resurface with a family connection to black Americans. I hoped the show would reveal that the black character has a historical and genealogical connection to the places, the families and the cultural and genealogical history.

So when I saw that the show’s drama was focusing on family, romance, love- interests, marriage, inheritance, changes in time, place and status and the characters’ adjustment to the 1920s Edwardian era and events, I was curious about the role of black characters during this era. In one interview with the Hollywood Reporter, Julian Fellowes described the Edwardian changes by saying -- “I think we deal with the changing attitude to sex.”

Fellowes chose to make the women on the show behave outside the norm in terms of sex, and few of the men do. Male bad sexual behavior is perpetrated by the men outside the family, not by those in the family. Fellowes was brave to feature a black character in romantic scenes in the turn-of-the-century drama. Now, it is time as the show enters Season 6 for him to introduce a family, or a romance that leads to marriage or other family rituals and traditions. There are current and historical precedents.

Recently, a young wealthy, mixed-race British black lady, Emma McQuiston, the daughter of a father who is a Nigerian oil tycoon and a mother who is an English socialite, married a future Marquess. Marquess is the ranking below duke, one rank above earl. She will be a Marchioness, Britain’s first black lady, as far as we know, to marry into the aristocracy at that level. She grew up in the same castles and environment as her husband, the son and heir of a Marquess, and they reunited romantically as adults.

Emma McQuiston married Ceawlin Thynn, Viscount Weymouth, the future Marquess of Bath and resident of Longleat Castle. As a child, she spent time at Longleat Castle. So firsts still happen in current history and should happen in fiction.

In interviews, Fellowes has said that the character of the black American jazz musician is loosely based on Leslie Arthur Julien Hutchinson, called Hutch, the talented, handsome black American cabaret singer, musician and pianist, who had dalliances and romances with nobles and royals in the twenties and thirties. Hutch romanced but did not marry into the aristocracy. Hutch’s romance with the bisexual socialite, Lady Louis Mountbatten, who later married and became Countess Mountbatten of Burma and then Vicereine of India, touched off a scandal. The countess’s husband, Lord Mountbatten, the uncle of Prince Philip, the great-grandson of Queen Victoria, also behaved scandalously. He too had bisexual romantic dalliances. As Lord Luis, the 1st Earl Mountbatten of Burma, and later Viceroy, then the Governor General of India, he and his wife were continuously wrapped in sexual and racial scandals. There are historical precedents therefore for even more scandalous twists in the “Downton” storyline.

The historical and racial storylines and scandals even drew King George V into the fray. First, rumors spread that the black American singer and actor, Paul Robeson, was the Countess’s lover. Later, it was said that Hutch and the Countess were locked in sexual muscle-freeze, and had to be separated by a surgeon. Neither rumor was true. But fascination with scandalous sex was the rage of the Edwardian era. Given the multi-racial records I uncovered on my family tree, Hutch, who was born in Grenada in the Caribbean, was probably descended from British nobles or even royals.

Historically, there were many affairs in this class but few marriages. Countess Edwina’s husband, Lord Mountbatten, had an affair with someone connected to Inveraray Castle (“Downton’s” Duneagle Castle). The affair was with Margaret Whigham, the future Margaret Campbell, the Duchess of Argyll, the wife of Inveraray’s 11th Duke of Argyll, grandfather of the current duke of the Castle, the 13th Duke. Ian Douglas Campbell, the 11th Duke of Argyll, was licentious. He married three very wealthy wives, and according to them, took all of their money as he cheated on them. So “Downton’s” plotlines are mild, compared with the sexual romp stories to be found in history. So far, the show has paralleled history but there is room for more firsts.

So bring on the storylines. It will take time before fiction catches up with actual lost genealogical histories and secrets. There were romances, scandal and shock, but few marriages. “Downton Abbey” still has room for a first.



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