Friday, May 3, 2013

5 Elements Downton Abbey Cribbed from P. G. Wodehouse in Season 3 Episode 6

My husband, Jeremy, and I are both fans of Downton Abbey, where Robert Crawley (Lord Grantham) is the patriarch of the titular estate and butler Mr. Carson heads up a staff of drama-prone servants. Fellow Downtonians already know that next season won’t begin in the US until next winter. We’re tiding ourselves over by slowly rewatching the last season, season 3, on DVD. Jeremy noticed that there were several striking commonalities between an episode that aired toward the end of the season and the writings of humorist P. G. Wodehouse, and he decided to blog about it.

Warning: Downton season 3 (and Wodehouse) spoilers below!


Did anyone else notice that Downton Abbey episode 6 (episodes 7 and 8 in the UK) of season 3 borrowed a lot of elements from P. G. Wodehouse stories? Here are five:

1.     Aunt Agatha
The young and irrepressible Rose MacClare, great-niece of Downton’s matriarch Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham, has an offscreen Aunt Agatha, who’s described as “not much of a party person.” When Rose is going to be sent to live with her, Rose decries having “a monster for a jailer.”

Wodehouse’s famous protagonist Bertie Wooster also has an Aunt Agatha, known as “the nephew-crusher,” who makes his life miserable. “Aunt Agatha” has, following Wodehouse, become a term for an overbearing older woman.

2.     The name Gregson
Michael Gregson, the newspaper editor who hires Lady Edith Crawley to write a column, shares a last name with Agatha Gregson, Bertie Wooster’s aunt.

3.     Blackmailing with a secret phrase
Former valet John Bates blackmails lady’s maid Sarah O’Brien simply by using the phrase “her ladyship’s soap,” which troubled (and in trouble) valet Thomas Barrow told him to say to O’Brien. The phrase stuns O’Brien, causing her to immediately change her tune and convince footman Jimmy Kent to drop his insistence that Mr. Barrow be sent away from Downton without a reference from Mr. Carson. Bates doesn’t even know what the phrase means.

Similarly, in Wodehouse’s novel The Code of the Woosters, Bertie Wooster says “Eulalie” to neutralize the brute Roderick Spode. Bertie also doesn’t know what the phrase means; he gets it from his butler Jeeves. It refers to a secret in Spode’s life that would ruin him were it known, just as the secret referenced by “her ladyship’s soap” would ruin O’Brien. In the case of Spode, who tries to be the intimidating leader of a fascist group called the Black Shorts, Eulalie is a ladies’ undergarments store he owns. (Which leads Bertie to remark, “You can’t be a successful Dictator and design women’s underclothing. One or the other. Not both.”)

4.     Hedonistic jazz club
With the Louisiana Boys playing jazz in the background, Rose MacClare and her married boyfriend Terence Margadale dance with abandon in the Blue Dragon club. Bertie Wooster likewise patronizes jazz clubs in New York during his exile of convenience from England.

5.     Estate agent job for the not-so-well-off
Tom Branson, husband of the late Sybil Crawley, the youngest daughter of Downton’s Lord Grantham, is not wealthy or aristocratic like his in-laws and, unlike them, must work to support himself. After Sybil dies, Tom is set to go join his brother Kieran’s car repair business in Ireland. But the Dowager Countess suggests that Tom be given the position of Downton’s estate agent—the overseer of the huge estate—to keep him and his infant daughter with the Crawley family.

In Wodehouse’s novel Psmith in the City, Psmith—who is from a well-off family—taps his cricket-playing friend Mike Jackson to be the Smith family estate agent (as well as convincing Psmith’s father to pay for Mike’s university education). This saves Mike from a dreary job in a bank, much as Tom was saved from working in a garage. (As a bonus parallel, Tom learns to play cricket in the next episode of Downton.)

Apparently Julian Fellowes believes that “good artists copy; great artists steal.”


When Jeremy isn’t reading Wodehouse or watching Downton Abbey, he’s developing Price Per Unit Calculator, a mobile web app you can use while shopping to compare unit prices. He’d appreciate your feedback on it!

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