Downton Abbey: Ask Me Anything

The final season of Downton Abbey is coming to a close. Throughout the three years I’ve been writing a column on the show for The Toast, I’ve gotten smart, interesting questions from readers. Usually I’ve been able to work the answers into future columns. But now the end is in sight.

I’m putting out a call for questions this week, which I’ll answer in a very special “Watching Downton Abbey with an Historian: Ask Me Anything.” Leave a comment here or hit me up on Twitter (@hammock_tussock).

Reading the comments and questions have been the very best part of this writing gig. I’m excited to see what you all come up with.

N or M? Agatha Christie, the Irish in Britain, and Surprising Satisfactions

Sometimes the best evidence turns up after the book is done and dusted, but that doesn’t make it any less satisfying to find. A few weeks ago, I was in Edinburgh, speaking to the Modern Irish History and Diaspora Series seminar about Irish republicans in interwar England. My talk ranged from 1916, when a number of English-born Irish men and women were involved in the doomed Rising in Dublin, to 1939, when the Irish Republican Army launched an ill-advised bombing campaign in England against Irish partition. After I’d finished, the Irish historian and author Owen Dudley Edwards asked me if I’d ever read Agatha Christie’s novel N or M? I hadn’t, but thanks to Edinburgh’s excellent used bookstores, I soon put myself in a position to remedy the gap.

N or M? is a Tommy & Tuppence mystery, written and set during the early years of World War II. The charming Beresfords, who represent Christie’s ideal of an intelligent, devoted, well-matched married couple, find themselves under cover at a seaside guesthouse where an undercover German agent is supposedly staying. Their task? Expose the culprit, before it’s too late and they’ve revealed the secrets the Nazis need to invade Britain successfully. A running theme is the internal threat: Tommy and Tuppence are brought out of retirement by a high-ranking British intelligence official who tells them that he can’t trust even his colleagues. ‘The rot’ is too widespread. In a bizarre twist, Christie herself was investigated by MI5 as a result of the novel, which features a ‘Major Bletchley’ – was the name, officials wondered, a sign that Christie knew about the top-secret code-breaking project at Bletchley Park? In fact, it was, apparently, merely coincidence.

Anyway – and this is where the post is about to get a little spoiler-y, if you want to stop for an evening and read the novel first – the Irish are all over this novel. Mrs. Perenna, who runs the guesthouse, has lived abroad in Spain and claims that her husband was half-Spanish. But he was also, at least, half-Irish. (The half-Spanish thing is, I think, a sly allusion to Eamon de Valera, then the premier of the Irish Free State, who was indeed of Spanish heritage. He was also, at this time, a thorn in the side of any patriotic Briton, having insisted on the Irish right to remain neutral during the Second World War.) Her late husband, Patrick Maguire, was a “follower” of Roger Casement, who secured (very limited) German aid for the 1916 rebellion and was hanged for his treason. The fictional Maguire, too, was shot for his part in the affair. Their daughter, the beautiful Sheila, now sulks around her mother’s guesthouse – when she’s not flirting with the handsome German chemist who claims to be a refugee from the Nazis. And then there’s the ominous Mrs. O’Rourke, a muscular Irish guest who seems to know that Tommy and Tuppence are not what they seem.

On January 12, 1939, the Irish Republican Army issued an ultimatum to the British government, demanding action to end the partition that separated Northern Ireland from the Irish Free State. There was no official response, and four days later the I.R.A set off co-ordinated explosions in Manchester, London, and Birmingham, as well as at a few more isolated sites on the electrical grid system. It was the start of a wave of explosions and other attacks, more than a hundred in total, that Irish militants inflicted on English targets in the spring and summer of 1939. The Germans probably provided some of the cash, indirectly through the Clan na Gael in the United States, though the British government at the time did not regard the campaign as a foreign-directed attack.

When I first started research this bombing campaign, I was prepared to find vitriol and prejudice. Although the IRA tried to avoid causing injuries or deaths, explosions are disruptive and frightening, and anger easily spills over onto innocent people who share a birthplace or an accent with those who set the bombs. And, indeed, there was stereotyping, and profiling, and unpleasant incidents. James Terry, a twenty-seven-year-old fitter’s laborer from County Waterford who had been working for three years in Liverpool, caused a commotion when he lit a match, and perhaps some celluloid, in a cinema. After some women shouted, “He’s an I.R.A. man,” Terry was attacked both inside and outside of the cinema until the fire brigade arrived and protected him. A police constable arriving on the scene found him on the fire engine, pleading, “For God’s sake get me out of this.”

One of the most vivid sources that I found was Mass Observation’s 1939 Racial Attitudes survey. Rather unscientifially, the survey asked: “Have the recent activities of the I.R.A. influenced your view of the Irish as a race?” Since it didn’t specify whether that view had improved or gotten worse, or how it had started out, the question isn’t much use from a quantitative perspective. But the comments written in the margins are amazing. Some are sharply negative: the Irish are “very vicious sometimes,” prompting “inevitable disgust and contempt.” Such respondents sometimes saw the hidden hand of Germany. “Obviously someone is behind the Irish—they’d never think of things like acid in balloons by themselves. Far too haphazard.”

But others are far gentler. One person said that bombings “represent a disagreeable but quite obvious side of a national character which in many ways I am very much attracted too.” Another call the Irish “lovable as individuals, but easily worked up.” Still others found the bombings to be a spur for self-reflection. “Yes (greater sympathy)” read one simple response. The bombings “brought to me the realisation that an injustice still exists there,” wrote one respondent, while another explained: “The recent activities of the I.R.A. haven’t influenced my attitude to the Irish as a race, because I have taken the trouble to read some of the ancient history of Ireland and can appreciate the reasons for the unrest in Ireland.”

Such evidence helped lead me to my ultimate conclusion: that by 1939, despite the bombing campaign, English society had made space for the Irish. After decades of conflict over Irish independence, the Irish minority could be assimilated – not fully absorbed, but depoliticized and accommodated as part of the tapestry of interwar English culture. This is not, I should say, a state of affairs that survived the Troubles of the 1970s and 1980s: but it is nonetheless a very real example of accommodation and acceptance in the wake of a divisive war and the creation of a new independent state.

N or M? says much the same thing. (Here’s where I really bring on the spoilers.) None of the Irish characters have anything to do with the espionage ring. Sheila and her German boyfriend want peace, not war, and Mrs. O’Rourke only looks frightening. The real culprits? The lovely English mother and the well-off Army man – the latter turns out to be actually a Prussian in disguise, while the former is a kidnapper as well as a spy. In real life, too, many Irish men and women served the British war effort, by joining the armed forces or working in factories. Christie has toyed with us here, playing with lazy assumptions that would link Irishness to treachery, but her novel ultimately exonerates the Irish in Britain.

Dreaming Up A Book

At some point, fairly early in the process of writing Ireland and the Irish in Interwar England, I had a dream. I think it was around the time when I had finished most of the research and was starting to write the first drafts of what would become, first, my dissertation. I dreamt that I was holding the finished book in my hand. It was a beautiful volume bound in green cloth.

In one way this dream came from the simple fact that most British publishers of the earlier twentieth century thought, with relentless uniformity, that books about Ireland should be bound in green (with, ideally, gold or silver lettering). I carried stacks of these emerald tomes through libraries in London, Dublin, and Manchester. My dream added my own book to their ranks.

The interior of the José Vasconcelos Library. By Eneas De Troya (Flickr) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
But it was also a way of manifesting the book. I remember shifting, slowly but decisively, from worrying about whether I’d chosen a good topic or whether I’d find sources to knowing, viscerally, what the book would be. It didn’t exist, but I could already hold it in my mind’s eye. The little green book in my dream became a North star, guiding my steps and allowing me to ignore others’ doubts.

Now I find myself back at the starting gate. Ideas for books compete in my mind, each with its own set of anxious questions about sources, audience, argument. And I try to work patiently and trust that I will be able to dream it all up again.

Watching Downton Abbey: Two More

The season winds along, and with it, An Historian.

Last week I poured my heart out about Neville Chamberlain. This is probably the column that was the most exciting to write (so far), and yet, it is also the one I’m most frustrated with. I got caught up in a really alternative reading of a strange episode, but I don’t think I did enough to bring my readers along with me in the column itself. One of the pleasures of writing a series like this is being able to publish my thoughts almost in real time — it’s so different from the laboriously slow process of academic publishing. But this column reminded me of the dangers of writing, and hitting send, in a fit of enthusiasm. Academia rewards the subversive reading, but it does so, first, through insisting on a lot of time to revise & digest that reading, and second, by cultivating an atmosphere of anxiety and self-doubt in its readers. Who has sat through a graduate seminar and not wondered, am I the only one too foolish to get this? But good writing, like good teaching, should do the opposite: it should leave you more informed and engaged than you were at the start. A great essayist lets you share in their triumphs.

This week, it was on to country-house visiting. Writing this one brought back many happy memories of my own visits to stately homes and historic relics. I mention the apartment of Mary, Queen of Scots, at Holyrood House in Edinburgh, which I visited just last month. The final room in that tour is filled with cases of artifacts that were originally assembled to delight and inform Victorian tourists; the whole thing is a brilliant exercise in public history, because it gives a vivid sense both of the ‘original’ (Tudor) history and how commemoration developed since George IV’s order to have the apartments preserved in the 19th century. I visited Haddon Hall in Derbyshire a few years ago, a wholly delightful experience, and I’m glad to say that the tearooms did not catch fire during my visit. I love visiting old homes. It feels a bit like visiting relatives as a child, when you didn’t have to sit with the grown-ups and talk but could roam around unsupervised, indulging in a sort of wholesome voyeurism. And my partner has the happy gift of chatting with docents, which can lead to wonderful things: most notably, a peak behind the ‘secret panels’ at Anne Lister’s house in Halifax, Shibden Hall. But that, as they say, is a story for another day.

Watching Downton Abbey with an Historian: Movin’ On Up

Back in the day, Tom Branson was the reason my friends told me to start watching Downton Abbey. He was a fire-breathing socialist Irish republican, handy with cars and ready to elope with the suffragette daughter of his employer. Now Lady Sybil lives only in memory and Tom is not only domesticated but thoroughly indoctrinated. He actually wants Downton Abbey to be more capitalistic, like those charming Americans he’s just fled. Ugh, I say, ugh.

And then I pull up my socks and write for The Toast about Downton and social mobility in modern British history.

Watching Downton Abbey with an Historian: The Case of the Missing Vicar

And, it’s a Downton two-fer! As Mr. Carson and Mrs. Hughes finally wed, I wonder why we see so very little of Downton’s vicar.

Less than a year ago, in his Easter message, prime minister David Cameron declared Britain to be “a Christian country,” insisting: “The church is not just a collection of beautiful old buildings. It is a living, active force doing great works across our country.” Downton, by contrast, gives us precisely a church that is a collection of beautiful old buildings

Watching Downton Abbey with an Historian: In Sickness & In Health

I was traveling last week, so didn’t post the link to the Toast column on episode two. As of today, the junior doctors in Britain have called off their second round of strike action, though it looks like this battle will continue for some time. The Conservatives want to squeeze more from already over-worked doctors in the National Health Service. For a look at the long backstory, via Downton’s hospital subplot, check out my article.

As Dr. Mark Porter, the Chair of the British Medical Association’s hospital consultants committee, put it in 2011: “Very deliberately the government wishes to turn back the clock to the 1930s and 1940s, when there were private, charitable and co-operative providers. But that system failed to provide comprehensive and universal service for the citizens of this country. That’s why health was nationalised.” Far from being a “dreary” subplot, the battle over the Downton Cottage Hospital might be the most relevant aspect of Downton Abbey this season.

Watching Downton Abbey with an Historian: The More Things Change

Downton Abbey is back for its final season on PBS, and I’m back at The Toast, writing a weekly column on the show each Tuesday.

In the first installment, I wonder whether the denizens of Downton are protesting too much when it comes to “change.” And why are Daisy’s land politics to the right of all three major UK parties in 1925?

Sic transit gloria mundi,” Lady Edith remarks as the family arrives at Mallerton on the day of the auction, prompting Lady Mary’s sharp riposte: “Will you be as philosophical when it’s our turn?”

But what sort of change, really, is looming? Viewers might do well to keep another famous phrase in mind, alongside Edith’s invocation of the passing of worldly glory: “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.” The more things change, the more they stay the same.

In many respects, 1925 and 1926 were the years when it became clear that World War I hadn’t really changed everything after all.

The Mystery of the Drinking Bird

In John Le Carré’s The Russia House (1988), a character gets himself a glass of water. He then begins “sipping from it in slow rhythmic movements like one of those plastic drinking birds that used to bob up and down between the miniatures on every gloomy English bar in the days before television sets replaced them.”

I’ve spent a reasonable amount of time in gloomy bars, in England and elsewhere, but strictly in the post-television age. What the heck were “those plastic drinking birds”? I love moments like this in literature, when you are reminded that the past is a foreign country, and we don’t know all its customs anymore.

The drinking bird, it turns out, is a toy made of hollow glass (not usually plastic) that operates as a basic heat engine. According to Robert Mentzer, a physics teacher from a Delaware high school who wrote about the subject in The Physics Teacher in 1993, “the critical part of the toy is the internal liquid, which must have a boiling point (b. p.) around room temperature.” First, the bird’s “head” is wetted with water, causing it to cool, which in turn lowers the pressure in the head. The unbalanced bird then tips over, ducking its head into a waiting vessel of water. The internal pressure is equalized, the bird rights itself – but with a wet head, causing the whole cycle to repeat itself.

On August 6, 1945, the same day that the United States dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan, Miles V. Sullivan, a researcher at Bell Labs, applied for a U.S. patent on the “drinking bird.” He received it just under a year later. The device, which he suggested could be used for amusement or advertisement purposes, “appears to the casual observer to be an example of perpetual motion.”

patent image
from Sullivan’s patent (1945)

The date of the patent would seem to place the “drinking bird” firmly in the era of television. But in fact this toy appears in the written record decades earlier. Yakov Perelman, a Russian science writer, describes what he calls the “insatiable birdie” as a “Chinese toy” in his 1913 book, Physics for Entertainment: Volume 2. There are several stories in circulation about Albert Einstein encountering the toy, either while traveling in China in 1922 or later, when a colleague showed him his son’s favorite gadget.

Still, the narrator’s reference to “plastic” and date of the US patent suggest that this is no fantasy of an eternal wayside English pub, but a very specific moment in English modernity, between the rise of mass-produced “drinking birds” and the era when televisions became ubiquitous in bars. The “drinking bird” seems nostalgic but isn’t; it’s the short-lived product of mid-century enthusiasm for science and dodgy patents. In more ways than Le Carré knew, it’s a fitting symbol for a novel ultimately concerned with the unraveling of the Cold War global system. The bird on the shelf seems to be in perpetual, unstoppable motion, but its time is limited, its physics no more “perpetual” than the logic of mutually assured destruction that underpinned the Cold War.

Lest a blog post on a very silly toy get too serious, I leave you with this marvel of modernity: the Dipping Duck Orchestra.