“I suppose it came to me that these balls and presentations and comings out are not aristocratic folderol, but the traditions by which members of this family mark their progress through life.” -Isobel Crawley
This was the reason to tune in to the Christmas Special. Downton’s recreation of the Coming Out ceremony that started the aristocratic social season. This was an aristocratic tradition that ran from the 17th century until Queen Elizabeth abolished it in 1958. For us Americans, the episode was a glimpse into a world of status and wealth that never was successfully recreated here (though not for lack of trying.) It was all there–the young ladies in debutante white, the ostrich feathers, the standing on ceremony. (Though the Dowager is poked a little fun at for wanting to present Rose, the moment makes it clear that it is the older generation who have not accepted modernity who truly relish the pomp and circumstance.) George V was in the house. We only see him and Queen Mary for a moment, as they are “not admirers of the new world.” If only the Prince of Wales was so smart about keeping out of it, the whole plot of the episode could have been avoided. It may not be as obvious to an American audience, but part of the what we are supposed to know as the Granthams make all the fuss over keeping Prince of Wales’ affair with his mistress private, is that it won’t do much good in the end. For those not up on their Royal History, the Price of Wales we met this episode was the future Edward VIII. In fifteen year’s time when his father dies, he’ll abdicate the throne to marry Wallis Simpson. There’s irony in the mistress (the historically accurate Freda Dudley-Ward) calling him a faithful little chap.
But of course, there had to be a story, and it starts with Mrs. Dudley-Ward foolishly giggling over a love letter the Prince of Wales sent her with Rose. Why exactly a mistress would be so reckless is beyond me, but I suppose the idea is that as modernity crept along and the old ways vanished, so too did the necessary discreetness in sleeping with their heir to the throne.