Downton Abbey: The New Movie and Its Inspiration

Poster from Season 1 (
Good news travels fast, so by now, you may have heard that a feature-length movie continuing the Crawley family saga from the popular BBC television series Downton Abbey has officially been given the green light. Filming is set to begin this summer, with a release likely to take place sometime next year.

Julian Fellowes, the creator of the original series (which I've discussed in an earlier post), is working on the script. Most, though not all of the primary characters in the series, including the Dowager Duchess (Maggie Smith) have signed on for the film.

What’s interesting to history lovers like me is that there’s a real person behind the story at the heart of Downton Abbey. Cora Levinson, the fictional daughter of a dry goods millionaire from Cincinnati in the series owes much to Mary Leiter, the real-life daughter of a dry goods millionaire from Chicago. Both Cora and Mary were part of a group who became known as the "Buccaneers" - rich American girls brought to England in the late 19th century by their social-climbing mothers, who were looking to "buy" a title for their daughters in the form of a substantial marriage dowry to a financially needy peer of the British realm.

Elizabeth McGovern, who plays American heiress
Cora Levinson who marries Lord Grantham
 and becomes a Countess in Downton Abbey.
It was a good bargain for the impoverished British nobility, who were desperate for an infusion of cold hard American cash to revive their crumbling estates. Some of these marital transactions turned out all right but others were downright disastrous in terms of mutual love and affection. (The miserable union of Consuelo Vanderbilt to Charles “Sunny” Spencer-Churchill, the 9th Duke of Marlborough, comes to mind.)

But a happy exception was the marriage of Mary to George Curzon, the eldest son of the 4th Baron Scarsdale. 

A noted scholar and adventurer with good looks and charisma, Curzon was destined to inherit a barony from his father and later become a Marquess. But he came from a big family with a small fortune.  

When George caught Mary’s eye, he was a politically ambitious young aristocrat who needed money to pursue his career goals. And the best way for gentlemen of his social class at that time to get money, if they couldn't inherit it, was to marry it. 

By 1890 Curzon had already made an unsuccessful attempt to court a wealthy widow. Then he saw Mary dance with the Prince of Wales at the Duchess of Westminster's ball. More importantly, Mary saw him, and she soon became enamored. 

In stark contrast to many of her fellow Buccaneers, Mary fell in love with her prospective groom and was able to marry him. And it was a happy marriage, even though Curzon didn’t reciprocate Mary’s affection at first. Like the American heiress Cora and Lord Grantham in Downton Abbey, George fell in love with his wife after their marriage.

And also like Cora, Mary was unable to give her husband a male heir. Instead, Mary and George had three daughters, none of whom were able to inherit their father’s estate or title, which is another historical fact Fellowes made use of in his fictional story.

Unlike Cora, Mary died at a relatively young age (36), leaving her grieving husband bereft. But Lady Curzon made quite a splash before she died, exciting universal admiration for her beauty, charm, and charitable works. She also rose quite high in Victorian society when her husband was appointed Viceroy of India in 1899 and she held the corresponding title of Vicereine of India. 
Because of her statuesque height and well-endowed figure, Mary wore clothes beautifully, a fact that George Frederick Worth, the Englishman who went to Paris and became the most famous fashion designer of the 19th century (he's been called the father of haute couture) didn’t fail to notice. Lady Curzon was one of many illustrious women in his exclusive clientele, and he designed many dresses for her.

But Lady Curzon’s most memorable Worth creation was undoubtedly the Peacock Gown, a truly stunning dress she wore to the Delhi Durbar, a ball held by her husband the Viceroy in 1903 in honor of the coronation of Edward VII a year earlier.

Mary’s sumptuous gown featured panels of chiffon decorated by craftsmen from Delhi and Agra with a gold-wire weaving technique called zardozi. The gold and silver embroidered panels were then shipped from India to Paris for assembly into the dress designed by Jean-Philippe Worth, who with his brother Gaston had taken over the family business after their father died in 1895. 

Lady Curzon in her peacock dress, photo taken in 1903 by Albert Edward Jeakins

What made the dress truly spectacular, however, was the addition of peacock feathers, which covered the gown in an overlapping pattern. And attached to the center of each feather was a shiny blue-and-green beetle wing.

Mary's dress was a sensation, which is no surprise. The gown is now on display at the Fashion Museum in Bath. The metal threads in the embroidery and embellishments on this gorgeous dress have reportedly become a little tarnished with time. However, the beetle wings are still shining with their iridescent luster, giving visitors an idea of the gown’s former full glory.

In her book, The World of Downton Abbey, Jessica Fellowes (niece of Julian) notes that as an American heiress Cora would have purchased her entire wardrobe from the House of Worth, making the twice-yearly pilgrimage to Paris to shop at Worth's salon and be present for fittings. That's another way the fictional world of Downton Abbey and the very real world of Lady Curzon overlap. 

It would have been fun to see a dress like Lady Curzon’s Peacock Gown on Downton Abbey, even if we just saw it hanging in the closet during Season 1. Cora could have pulled it out once or twice to reminisce about the time she made a big splash at the King’s coronation ball.

But I’m sure the TV program’s budget couldn’t have been stretched to cover such an extravagance. We’ll just have to see what sort of costumes Fellowes and his crew come up with for the movie!

Images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

 Sources for this post include:
  • To Marry an English Lord, Or, How Anglomania Really Got Started (especially in America!), by Gail MacColl and Carol McD. Wallace, Workman Publishing, New York, 1989
  • The House of Worth, 1858-1954, The Birth of Haute Couture, by Chantal Trubert-Tollu, Françoise Tétart-Vittu, Jean-Marie Martin-Hattemberg, Fabrice Olivieri, Forward by Christian Lacroix, Thames & Hudson LTD, London, 2017
  • The World of Downton Abbey, by Jessica Fellowes, St. Martin's Press, New York, 2011

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