Last night’s episode of Downton Abbey has turned Slate commenters into historians. Dozens of readers are arguing about the credibility of the plot line that saw Thomas’ misunderstanding with Jimmy the junior footman result in his receiving a promotion rather than a jail term or a horsewhipping.
The most unlikely part of this story line is that Thomas would sneak into Jimmy’s room and kiss him while the latter appeared to sleep. Servants in great houses were generally expected to live celibate lives. As we saw in Season 1, below stairs the men’s quarters are separated from the women’s rooms by a locked door, whose key Mrs. Hughes keeps guarded on a heavy metal key ring. In recent weeks, when Alfred invited Ivy to accompany him to the movies, Mrs. Patmore allowed the outing only on the condition that they not go alone. If servants in great houses did wed, there was an expectation that they would leave service. Since there was no room for married couples below stairs, and given the masters’ round-the-clock demands, nonresident maids and valets would provide less than adequate service.
The Crawleys, of course, have made an exception for Anna and Bates, finding a cottage for them on the estate. As Robert’s former soldier-servant from the Boer War, Bates’ situation is far from typical. But Thomas, who has resented Bates ever since his arrival denied him the job of Lord Grantham’s valet, has been forced to watch his rival enjoy a happy love life.
O’Brien effectively manipulated Jimmy into stifling his natural responses to Thomas’ caresses, then she got Thomas to believe that his most deeply held desire—for an reciprocated romantic relationship with a class-appropriate guy who also happens to be drop-dead gorgeous—was on hand. Should Thomas have kissed Jimmy while he was sleeping? No. Would he have believed O’Brien’s stories of Jimmy “talking soppy” about him to Alfred? Not absent any other evidence. But the fact that Jimmy had never complained about Thomas’ touches would have served, to a desperate man in 1920, as that other evidence. As Thomas told Mr. Carson, “When you’re like me … you have to read the signs as best you can, because no one will speak out.” Those commenters saying that Thomas should’ve gained Jimmy’s consent before kissing him are asking more than history will allow. Men have been sleeping with other men for millennia; they’ve been talking about it for considerably less.
Actor Rob James-Collier did a great job of conveying Thomas’ struggle. After years of loneliness and contempt, love seemed to be calling from across the hall. He knew the risks—a beating, dismissal, jail—but he gave in to his romantic side and kissed the man he had been told was mooning over him. There was no suggestion of Thomas forcing himself on Jimmy, who is physically strong and an independent thinker; he was simply making the first move.
But is there any chance that in 1920, lord and servant alike would’ve been cool with Thomas’ homosexuality? Let’s stipulate, first of all, that Julian Fellowes’ creation is far from a paragon of historical accuracy, especially in regards to social attitudes. Having Carson reject Thomas’ “revolting world” and call him foul is an inadequate stand-in for society’s institutional homophobia, but as I wrote earlier this week, I give Fellowes credit for finding dramatically convincing explanations for everyone’s tolerance.
Lord Grantham’s acceptance of the predatory nature of Eton life (and let’s not forget that the vast majority of those stolen kisses would’ve come from boys who grew up to lead heterosexual lives) is one of the few things that isn’t anachronistic about Downton Abbey. Would Robert have been content to employ a “body servant” whom he knew to harbor homosexual urges? If the man did his job well and observed all the appropriate proprieties, as Thomas Barrow apparently did, Lord Grantham would put up with a great deal. It is overt challenges to established rules of propriety—inappropriate evening attire, marrying into the wrong religion, women expressing opinions in public forums—that bother Lord Grantham. (And, yes, Thomas is very good at cricket, but if that really mattered, perhaps we’d have learned who won the match.)
Jimmy and Alfred are both worried that no one should think them gay—much of that concern having been ginned up by O’Brien—but all the other characters have credible reasons for wanting Thomas to keep his job. After his wrongful imprisonment, Bates is fighting for justice. Mrs. Hughes believes Thomas to be a war hero. None of the servants want to believe that anyone they know could be dismissed without a reference, since that’s tantamount to destitution. Let’s face it, Thomas is a nasty piece of work—the servants have no shortage of reasons to dislike Mr. Barrow without bringing his sexuality into it—but he’s good at his job, which buys a lot of forbearance in this world.
Would there have been gay society within Thomas’ cruising range? It’s hard to know how much real-life exactitude to bring to Julian Fellowes’ invented world, but the chances are very slim. George Chauncey’s Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World 1890-1940 describes the signals that New Yorkers used to announce themselves as “fairies”: Gay male attire included “green suits, tight-cuffed trousers, flowered bathing trunks, and half-lengthed flaring top-coats.” Gay men were also known to wear “excessively bright feathers in their hat-bands.” According to Chauncey, the most famous signal of gayness was a red necktie. In faraway Northern England, it’s hard to imagine circumstances in which a working-class man like Thomas, so proud of the fine black suit his position as a valet permits him to wear, would be able to obtain, much less wear, such items.
I could find no chronicles of gay life in Yorkshire in the 1920s, but in the 1980s, Terry Sanderson, a working-class gay man from Rotherham, South Yorkshire, described his coming out in the 1970s in an essay in the British collection Radical Records: Thirty Years of Lesbian and Gay History. It’s a story of an active but hidden world. Sanderson describes being measured for his first suit by a man who “lingered over my inside leg and when he realized I wasn’t going to object, gave me a comprehensive fondling,” which brings to mind Thomas’ unslapped hands on Jimmy’s shoulders and legs. Later Sanderson got a job at a camera shop managed by a gay man, which received regular visitors from various pillars of the community who were living secret lives: “I came to realize that the twilight world actually existed unseen, but in parallel, with everyone else’s world,” he writes. Even 40 years ago, few had any concept that a gay relationship was a possibility. “Many of them had had sex with other gays, but few of them accepted that you could make a way of life out of it.”
Thomas’ gay pride—or at least his refusal to hate himself—may be anachronistic, but as long as he didn’t say too much about the love that dare not speak its name, it’s easy to believe that how well he did his job would count for more than whom he pined for.