3:30pm May 7, 2013

Lost History in Downton Abbey


By Pearl Duncan.  Duncan is completing two books, tentatively titled, “DNA Adventure, Rebels’ Birthright Reclaimed,” and “A Pirate Ship of Old New York:  Colonial Slavery, The Founding Fathers and a Remarkable 9/11 Discovery.”


Now that it is announced by the producers of Downton Abbey that Gary Carr, the star of the BBC’s Death in Paradise, a mystery set on a Caribbean island, will join the show as an attractive, charming and charismatic jazz musician, some viewers who love the popular British television show set in the 1920s, flushed with Edwardian style, fashion and upstairs downstairs shenanigans, ask if the show will continue to be historically accurate.  Why do they ask?  They ask because the jazz musician being added to a show about British aristocrats and their servants is black.

As an African American who has delighted in the show since it first aired on PBS, I ask instead, Will the black jazz musician be related to the aristocratic Grantham family?  I ask because I have ancestors who were British nobles, connected to other dukes and earls, and who were steeped in the actions of one of the real life castles featured on show.  There are black descendants of the nobles featured on the show, and even in the 1920s, there were a few who were aware of the relationship of British aristocrats and African Americans in the United States and the Caribbean Islands.  Even in literature, the relationship was hinted, but few of the black characters were portrayed.

Downton Abbey has dramatic themes and storylines in the melodrama, and one theme that looms large is the law of primogeniture, a practice, which decrees that male heirs inherit instead of female heirs.  But primogeniture also applies to whether a black, male or female, can or cannot inherit.  My black descendants of British nobles, for example, were prevented from inheriting anything because of their race.  A decade ago, I uncovered records showing that my 13th-century noble British male ancestors said, “only the male heirs of my loins shall inherit” titles, castles and estates.  It was also the law that the black heirs of their loins also could not inherit.  That was the practice.  The British descendants of these 13th-century lords, the later lords such as those featured in the era of the television show also said blacks and whites in the Colonies could not marry.  They also could not inherit the lords’ titles or property.

So the laws of primogeniture applied in real time history, and in fiction.  But that should not prevent creative writers from highlighting primogeniture.  Julian Fellowes, the creator of Downton Abbey, already has fesatured the restrictions of primogeniture, in terms of male female inheritors, and which male has to inherit, because the females cannot.  So now he can also feature the laws of primogeniture, in terms of race.  He can do so in ways that other creative writers did or did not do.


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  1. [...] to give DA fans even more to chew on, here is a fascinating discussion about  the role of race in English [...]

    • Pearl Duncan

      So sorry I missed the discussion. I just saw your note. I hope I can make the next discussion; it should be quite interesting. I will check to see what was discussed in the June 13 meeting in Morristown.

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