Members and guests were transported to the England of Jane Austen’s Regency era as well as early 20th century Britain in an illustrated and illuminating presentation by DiAnn Ellis titled “Historical, Cultural and Social Links from Jane Austen to Downton Abbey.” The event was held at a new venue for JASNA-Southwest, the University Club of Pasadena.
Board member Jan Fahey introduced Ellis, noting she has been a Jane Austen reader and fan since high school. Ellis retired from San Francisco State University after a 34-year career in literacy education. A passionate student of British history, Ellis has lived in London, Cambridge and the Cotswolds, as well as Paris and Geneva and numerous U.S. states. She now resides in Northern California and is active in her local JASNA chapter.
Her talk covered a wide range of topics and was punctuated by photos, music and videos, including a hilarious YouTube recap of Downton Abbey seasons one and two. She also presented numerous display boards featuring images of Highclere Castle (which stands in for Downton Abbey in the series) and nearby Chawton (Jane Austen’s final home before seeking medical care in Winchester, where she died in 1817), as well as fashions from the early 20th century.
Ellis presented maps illustrating what the British empire looked like during Austen’s time as well as the empire’s zenith in 1919. She noted that “Of the world’s 200+ countries, the British have invaded all but 22.”
She offered the historical context for Austen’s writing and Julian Fellowes’ inspiration for Downton Abbey, whose name was a tribute to his great grandfather, president of Downton Agricultural College. She explained the evolution of the British aristocracy: “This is the equation — Land equals wealth equals status equals power. The land was inherited; the wealth came from farming; the status put people in the House of Lords; and the power came from their ability to make laws.”
Ellis added that the aristocracy originated when kings rewarded the loyalty of warring chiefs with land and noble titles. “A strict hierarchy of class was formed over the centuries, and their wealth was phenomenal,” she said, noting that 7,000 families owned four-fifths of the land in the British isles in the 1870s. Some 250 families owned estates of more than 30,000 acres each.
She detailed the six ranks of the peerage: duke (the next highest rank to the monarchy, with only 11 dukes in a nation of 53 million people today), marquis, earl, viscount, baron and knight. She noted that Lady Edith in Downton Abbey ultimately marries a marquis and thus outranks her father, the Earl of Grantham. She added that Mr. Darcy is the grandson of an earl, making Lady Catherine the daughter of an earl and thus outranking her late husband, Sir Lewis.
Ellis also outlined what a family could afford during Austen’s time, depending on their income. A family, like Mrs. Dashwood and her daughters, who had only 400 pounds a year, could employ two maids, a horse and groom. “With 1,000 pounds, a family could blossom out into an establishment of three female servants, a coachman and a footman, a chariot or coach, a phaeton or other four-wheeled carriage and a pair of horses. On 5,000 pounds a year, the establishment grew to 13 male and female servants, 10 horses, a coach, curricle and chaise,” she said. Ellis estimated Mr. Darcy’s 10,000 pounds a year at 1 million pounds in today’s equivalency.
Her talk also covered how the aristocracy became land poor beginning in the 1880s, when death taxes were levied for the first time on inherited property. This led to titled but impoverished Englishmen marrying wealthy and ambitious American heiresses, such as Lady Cora in Downton Abbey and real-life “buccaneers” such as Mary Leiter Curzon, Consuelo Vanderbilt and Jennie Jerome Churchill, Winston Churchill’s mother, who was an heiress to a New York developer father when she married Lord Randolph Churchill.
Other topics covered were the entail, the Industrial Revolution, the suffragette movement and much more. We also learned that Kate Middleton is an 11th cousin of Jane Austen, six times removed, and that actress Anna Chancellor (Caroline Bingley in the 1995 mini series) descends from Austen’s brother Edward.