Will Downton Abbey survive the coming 1929 stock market crash and subsequent depression? No doubt it will, but it may be sorely tested by the worldwide stock market implosion, a depressed British economy and the specter of rising fascism in Europe. Downton Abbey will be pushed in new directions that make previous challenges look like a cake walk.
As I write this, we’re well into Season 4. (Note: I’ve resisted temptation and I have not peaked at any plot summaries of future episodes).
To recap briefly -- Season 1 began with the sinking of the Titanic (1912) and the introduction of electricity to Downton Abbey. Servants ironed the morning newspaper and the status quo ruled. By Season 4, WWI has come and gone, leaving some scars. We're now in the Roaring Twenties. Social mores and class barriers continue to weaken (relatively) and there is talk of installing a refrigerator in the kitchen. Upstairs and downstairs dramas play out against the backdrop of sequined flapper girls dresses and sexual emancipation. Money issues still drive much of the plot, however. Downton Abbey faces a crippling inheritance tax (even though beneficiary Mary Crawley was his wife). Mary hints at taking out bank loans so the estate will not be broken up. She's at loggerheads with Lord Grantham when it comes to running the estate (just as her deceased husband was).
Meanwhile, the Roaring Twenties is in full swing in England. Things are booming in the industrial world , stocks are soaring and ownership is not confined to the wealthy anymore. By 1929, US brokers are lending small investors more than 2/3 of the value of the stocks they’re buying – a veritable house of cards. Wall Street is up ten-fold in a scant 9 year period. A warning shot if fired over the bow when the London Stock Market (LSE) crashes on September 20, 1929 – a full month before the Wall Street crash. The trigger is the arrest of a top British investor on fraud and forgery charges. This rattles US investors, Wall Street becomes acutely unsettled and it implodes a month later. On October 24, 1929 (“Black Thursday”) the US market loses 11% at the opening bell on very high volume.
After the crash, England suffers similar economic symptoms as the US. Unemployment soars and Britain elects to go off the gold standard in 1931. The pound sterling promptly falls sharply (which helps the English economy) but European banks overall are mired in crisis in 1931. Economies around the world are sneezing simultaneously and catching variations of the same cold. The Roaring Twenties definitely are over.
How will Downton Abbey fare during and after the 1929 Crash? It's plausible that Cora Crawley’s wealthy American mother and brother will suffer from the Wall Street Crash. Dark clouds loom on the horizon as we hear her brother has lost money on an ill-conceived business venture. Perhaps they even will reverse tables and ask the Crawleys for money. Downton Abbey will become leaner in terms of support staff; remaining staff will cling to Downton Abbey since jobs are scarce. Plans to shore up Downton Abbey through bank loans will fail if banks close after the Crash. Economic uncertainty will intrude further upon the aristocratic lifestyle the Crawleys enjoy and conspire against their struggle to keep Downton Abbey intact. Edith’s fiancé has gone to Germany to become a citizen. Will he succumb to populist German anti-Semitic hysteria and territorial expansion? Anything is possible!
Julian Fellowes, the creator of Downton Abbey, said he loves the time period he set Downton Abbey in because it is a time of great social change. Perhaps we’ll be spared the direct effects of WWII on Downton Abbey but we certainly won’t escape the corrosive effects of the impending 1929 Crash and aftermath.