The Music and Literature of Downton Abbey

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downton5Make sure all your planning and grading is done before January 5. You will no doubt want to be free on the fifth to enjoy one final Winter Break indulgence: snuggling up with a cuppa English tea and an American cookie to watch the season premier of Downton Abbey. If this sounds like a delicious way to end your Winter Break, extend the joy and bring Downton Abbey into your classroom.

Now in season four in the United States and season five in the U.K., Downton Abbey shares the saga of the Crawley family and their servants. Because it is an historical drama, real world events provide the backdrop. Previous seasons of Downton Abbey weaved in the sinking of the Titanic, the 1918 influenza epidemic, and World War 1. Each event profoundly affected the characters and the plot. The upcoming season is no different.downton7

Season four takes place between February and August, 1922—Ireland continues to struggle for independence, Egypt gains self-government from Britain, and the Teapot Dome Scandal rocks Washington D.C.  Season four guests include a fictional jazz musician, Bloomsbury author Virginia Woolf, and Australian opera singer Nellie Melba.

Invite your students to join the legions of viewers who reserve Sunday evenings for the Crawley clan. You do not need to tell them Downton Abbey is educational. (It is like making brownies with spinach.) Once they are hooked and full of questions, use a handful of websites to examine Jazz music, Virginia Woolf, and Nellie Melba in greater depth.

downton4Inside Downton Abbey

If you have not watched Downton Abbey from the beginning, or need a refresher, visit the timeline of the plot. Meet the socialites and the staff of Downton Abbey, as well as the actors who portray them. Click on a character to learn more. If you were to work at Downton Abbey, which job would you have? Take a quiz and discoverwhich job is right for you. At PBS’ Downton Abbey site, you can also watch a collection of videos.downton6

Downton Abbey is a fictional setting; however, the show is filmed at the very real Highclere Castle. Visit Highclere Castle and Gardens. Use the menu in the left margin to explore the rooms, upstairs and downstairs, grounds, and the park and follies. On each page, be sure to explore the gallery of photos found in the right margin. Read more about the history of the estate.

Curious how you would fit in at Downton Abbey?

downton1Downton’s Music and Literature

Jazz music is uniquely American, but it spread worldwide during the Roaring Twenties. At PBS, learn more about thecultural influences and places Jazz developed. Read more aboutJazz during the Roaring Twenties, including audio samples.  Listen toartists, songs, and instruments. Visit the Smithsonian Folkways Jazz Mixer and hear three Jazz songs, then isolate different instruments and experiment with the sound. Then visit the timeline to hear how Jazz developed. Be sure to listen to the samples. (You will find the links for them at the bottom of the text boxes so scroll down and read it all.)downton3

This coming season of Downton Abbey also includes opera music, specifically opera great Nellie Melba. Melba was an Australia opera singer who attained international acclaim. In April 1927, she appeared on the cover of Time magazine. During Season 4, she visits Downton Abbey. View atimeline of Melba’s life. Read abrief biography of Melba’s professional life, or read chapters of thecomplete biography. Of course no study of an opera diva would be complete withoutlistening to her. Students probably have not heard of Nellie Melba. One measure of her fame isthe food she inspired. Few people can claim four foods are named after them!


Highclere’s guests include authors as well as musicians. Virginia Woolf makes an appearance during Season 4 of Downton Abbey. By 1922, Woolf had published several short stories and two novels, The Voyage Out (1915) and Night and Day (1919). Perhaps Edith Crawley, the Bohemian black-sheep of the family, is a fan. Read abiography of Woolf’s life.

Woolf’s association with the Bloomsburg Group was a keystone of her creative and personal life. Students can learn more about theirorigins,members, lifestyle and beliefs, andinfluence and achievements. Students can read, online,A Haunted House and other short stories. The first six stories were published before 1922 and the Crawleys, especially Edith, might have been familiar with them.

Downtown Abbey is more than eye-candy for the weary on a Sunday evening. Its rich historical context provides an avenue for viewers to learn more about events, art and music, and British culture. Look for ways to introduce your students to the fictional Downton Abbey and the Crawley family.

Rachel Cummings

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.7 Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse media and formats, including visually and quantitatively, as well as in words.1
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.9-10.4 Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in the text, including figurative and connotative meanings; analyze the cumulative impact of specific word choices on meaning and tone (e.g., how the language evokes a sense of time and place; how it sets a formal or informal tone).
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.9-10.5 Analyze how an author’s choices concerning how to structure a text, order events within it (e.g., parallel plots), and manipulate time (e.g., pacing, flashbacks) create such effects as mystery, tension, or surprise.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.9-10.6 Analyze a particular point of view or cultural experience reflected in a work of literature from outside the United States, drawing on a wide reading of world literature.

§110.34. English Language Arts and Reading, English IV
(2)  Reading/Comprehension of Literary Text/Theme and Genre. Students analyze, make inferences and draw conclusions about theme and genre in different cultural, historical, and contemporary contexts and provide evidence from the text to support their understanding. Students are expected to:
(C)  relate the characters, setting, and theme of a literary work to the historical, social, and economic ideas of its time.
(4)  Reading/Comprehension of Literary Text/Drama. Students understand, make inferences and draw conclusions about the structure and elements of drama and provide evidence from text to support their understanding. Students are expected to evaluate how the structure and elements of drama change in the works of British dramatists across literary periods.

§110.51. Literary Genres
(4)  The student reads to increase knowledge of his/her own culture, the culture of others, and the common elements of cultures. The student is expected to:
(A)  compare text events with personal and other readers' experiences;
(B)  recognize and discuss themes and connections that cross cultures; and
(C)  recognize how writers represent and reveal their cultures and traditions in texts.


The Australian Dictionary of Biography: Nellie Melba

Dame Nellie Melba Museum

The European Graduate School: Virginia Woolf--biography

The Nashua Telegraph: Dame Nellie Melba

PBS: Downton Abbey

PBS: Jazz

Pure View: audio of Melba singing

Smithsonian Folkways: Jazz

The Tate Museum: Archive Journeys: Bloomsbury

Adelaide University: E-books

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