Ah, how we love our British period pieces!
Farley Prop House.
Have you ever stopped listening to and watching the plot and characters, and just examined the kitchen at Downton Abbey?
All that to say, we have no tolerance for anachronism in our period pieces.
Except with ideas and cultural trends. Thus, Downton Abbey can introduce an active homosexual, known as such to everyone in the house -- an aristocratic house in rural England, no less! -- and the characters smile, accept this fact, and Lord Grantham plots a way for the criminal (at that time) to remain on his staff -- as his own valet, helping him dress and undress, traveling with him, or serving his guests! Thomas's presence in the household is as out-of-place as a wide-screen TV.
Or Ethel. An fallen woman who became pregnant out of wedlock, who chooses to keep her baby, and later becomes a prostitute in London. Did those sins occur in the 1920s? Of course. Did women like Ethel usually keep the baby when wealthy family want to adopt him? No. Babies like that were commonly placed elsewhere and a woman like Ethel was not trusted, not allowed, to raise a child alone. That's a modern ideal. And Ethel, cooking and serving lunch in an aristocratic home? Ludicrous! We may deplore Lord Grantham's vitriol and anger, but his reaction was certainly more in tune with the times. The women's placid response, Violet's interest in only the food, would be unheard of. In fact, Ethel would never have been hired there in the first place.
My point is that yes, Thomas and Ethel existed in the 1920s, but they were so buried, so unspoken of and unknown in good society, that they would not have touched Downton Abbey's characters or plot. A home like Downton was the height of rigid tradition. The directors make a flacid attempt at mock shock toward homosexuality and fornication, but they present it so that the audience dislikes such censure. We prefer the drama of introducing characters and thinking wholly unsuited to this supposed "period piece."
These pieces are not history. When we watch them, we should not fool ourselves that we're learning anything accurate about the times they claim to depict. We learn only how modern directors, producers, and actors desire to reinterpret those times. Sadly, they interpret the history (or literature) in light of their own cherished vices. Sometimes they are subtle enough that we tolerate them. If they over-reach, we occasionally roll our eyes and turn off the TV.
I did this with Miss Marple. How many Miss Marples have there been? I adore Joan Hixson. I spent many years reading Christie's mysteries over and over. I knew her mind, her world. But when the new series with Geraldine McEwan arrived, I could not watch. It seemed at every episode there was an attempt to wheedle homosexuality into a story where I knew Christie had never placed it. Why? The answer was clear: Adherence to Christie's world was not the goal. Introducing homosexuality into something I love and already accept -- that was the goal. It's a blatant manipulation, a cultural maneuver. Being a "period piece" is pure sham.
I'll continue to enjoy the beauty of Lady Mary's dresses and hats, but I'll do so with a critical eye.