Arts & Culture
4:57 pm
Fri February 8, 2013

Downton Abbey & Biltmore – How Similar Are They?

Downton Abbey cast
Downton Abbey cast
Credit (C) Carnival Film & Television Limited 2012 for MASTERPIECE

(Here's David Bianculli's review of Downton Abbey's 4th Season premiere.)

If you’ve watched just one episode of the popular PBS television series Downton Abbey, then you’ll know that the show is set in the early 1900s in an extravagant manor in the English countryside and that it revolves around the personal lives of the privileged Crawley family and their bustling “downstairs” staff.  And if you’ve visited the Biltmore estate near Asheville, then you’ll know that Biltmore is also a grandiose mansion inhabited in the early 1900s by the wealthy Vanderbilt family and their army of busy servants.  So was life at Biltmore anything like life portrayed in the fictional Downton Abbey?

To find out, we turned to the Biltmore chief curator Darren Poupore, who has been monitoring the Downton Abbey series for parallels between the two families.  If you’re a Downton fan, you might be surprised at some uncanny similarities. The normal day-to-day life of the Vanderbilt family and its servants right down to the food they ate and the clothes they wore, bears a striking resemblance to life depicted at Downton Abbey. Here are some of the most interesting comparisons:

THE FAMILY & TRADITIONS

The Crawley family
The Crawley family
Credit (C) Giles Keyte/Carnival Film & Television Limited 2012 for MASTERPIECE

People

  • DOWNTON – Fans of Downton have grown to know the Crawley sisters - Mary, Edith, and Sybil- their American mother Cora, British father Robert, and the famously old-fashioned Dowager countess.
  • BILTMORE – The Biltmore estate was run by George and Edith Vanderbilt. They had a daughter Cornelia, in 1900, who would have grown up in same generation as the Crawley daughters. Interestingly, Edith Vanderbilt grew up in Newport, Rhode Island, where Downton's Cora Crawley also has ties. Unlike life at Downton, however, there was no grandmother or grandfather figure with close ties to the family.
    Edith and Cornelia portrait
    Edith and Cornelia Vanderbilt
    Credit The Biltmore Company

Meals

  • DOWNTON – The kitchen is one of the busiest rooms in Downton Abbey, with the quick-tempered cook Mrs. Patmore barking out orders to her kitchen maids who scramble to follow her commands. Downton's Crawley family assembles in the dining room in full dress every evening to enjoy elaborate and meticulously prepared French dishes.
  • BILTMORE – Meals at Biltmore were very similar to those portrayed at Downton. The downstairs kitchen employed French and British chefs trained in the trendiest culinary traditions of the day, and the Vanderbilts regularly enjoyed eight, nine, or even ten-course meals. The Vanderbilt family also dressed like the Crawleys – tuxedos for the men and formal dresses for the women.

Romance

  • DOWNTON – Lady Mary Crawley, the eldest daughter of Lord and Lady Grantham, was pressured to marry someone who had money. In 1920, she wed Downton heir Matthew Crawley in a ceremony at their local church. Village people cheered her on with flowers and garlands, and the event was a major celebration for the entire town.
  • BILTMORE – Cornelia Vanderbilt, the only daughter of George and Edith Vanderbilt, was encouraged to marry out of love. She met Englishman John F. A. Cecil in Washington D.C., fell in love, and married him in 1924 in a lavish ceremony in Biltmore Village. They invited 1000 guests, and crowds of townspeople formed outside the church to herald the couple. Cornelia’s wedding dress also bears a resemblance to the one worn by Edith Crawley.

THE MANSION

Front of Biltmore House, present day
Front of Biltmore House, present day
Credit The Biltmore Company

Estate History

  • DOWNTON - The fictional Downton Abbey is filmed at the real-life Highclere Castle in Hampshire, England. It was built in 1679, but largely remodeled and rebuilt in 1842, The ornate decorations and furnishings seen in the TV series are all an actual part of the Carnarvon family’s personal estate.
  • BILTMORE - Biltmore was constructed from 1889-1895 and designed by architect Richard Morris Hunt. The grounds were designed by Frederick Law Olmstead, who also designed New York’s Central Park. Many original furnishings and paintings there remain as they did a century ago when the house was inhabited by the Vanderbilt family.

Technology

  • DOWNTON - In the 19-teens, Downton Abbey installs electricity and telephones, which causes quite a stir among the servants. 
  • BILTMORE - George Vanderbilt was a very early adopter of modern technology, and he had the Biltmore home constructed with electricity and an internal telephone system. Biltmore also had other technological perks - an electronic bell system to summon servants, with ivory push buttons in major rooms; two electric elevators; and an indoor swimming pool with underwater electric lights.

THE STAFF

Downton's kitchen maid Daisy and cook Mrs. Patmore
Downton's kitchen maid Daisy and cook Mrs. Patmore
Credit (C) Carnival Film & Television Limited 2012 for MASTERPIECE

  • DOWNTON – Downton Abbey’s household is run by the old-fashioned Butler Mr. Carson and the head housemaid Mrs. Hughes, known for her stern, but kind demeanor.
  • BILTMORE –Biltmore also had a succession of butlers and a commanding head housemaid, Mrs. King.  Like many head housemaids in America at the time, she hailed from England, and like Mrs. Hughes she was known to make her rounds with a massive ring of keys that would open any door she wished. When asked to describe her, one maid said she was “nice and kind, but ran a tight ship.” 

HISTORICAL EVENTS

Mary and Edith Crawley from Downton Abbey
Mary and Edith Crawley from Downton Abbey
Credit (C) Carnival Film & Television Limited 2012 for MASTERPIECE

Women’s Rights 

  • DOWNTON - So far on the show, we’ve seen the two youngest Crawley sisters take an interest in the women’s rights movement of the early 1920s.
  • BILTMORE - Although we don’t know how Cornelia Vanderbilt felt, we do know that her mother, Edith, became an active voice for the place of women in society. After her husband passed away, she became the first female president of the North Carolina State Fair, and her acceptance speech declared that she was accepting the position of behalf of all women.

The Titanic

  • DOWNTON - The show begins when Downton Abbey’s original heir drowns on the Titanic, forever altering the course of the estate.
  • BILTMORE - The Titanic also nearly wrecked the fate of the Vanderbilt family – George and Edith Vanderbilt bought tickets to cross on the majestic ship, but changed their plans to sail on the Titanic’s sister ship, the Olympic, the night before it embarked, which was one week before the Titanic. For an unknown reason, however, Vanderbilt footman Edwin Wheeler kept his original ticket on the Titanic and perished when the ship sank.

World War I

  • DOWNTON - In Downton Abbey’s second season, both Matthew Crawley and footman Thomas leave to fight in the war and return with serious injuries. The estate also becomes a recovery hospital for British officers.
  • BILTMORE - At Biltmore, some of the British domestic servants returned to England to fight with the British army. One servant, Herbert Noble, left to fight in the war, but was promised a job at Biltmore if he returned. Although he ended up losing a hand in the war, Edith Vanderbilt kept her word, and Noble rejoined the staff of Biltmore where he remained until the 1930s. While Biltmore did not become a military hospital like Downton, Edith Vanderbilt did support the war effort by sponsoring fundraisers for the Red Cross.

The Vanderbilt family lived in Biltmore until the 1930s, when they opened the house to the public as a private museum. Downton fans will have to wait and see if the Crawley family’s endangered way of life follows the same route as the Vanderbilts or if they can remain living in luxury for years to come.