Disability On Television: Upstairs, Downstairs and South Riding

My ongoing love affair with PBS for importing tons of British shows for Masterpiece Theatre continues unabated, and I was particularly interested with two costume dramas they brought over earlier this year; South Riding and Upstairs, Downstairs. Both featured looks at British life in the 1930s in radically different settings. One was set in busy London, the other in rural England, and both included themes of institutionalisation and social attitudes about people with disabilities during this era. This post does include some detailed plot discussions, so if you haven’t seen the shows yet and you are planning on it, you may want to skip it for now.

In South Riding, one of the themes that runs behind the show is the fate of Muriel, the wife of Robert Carne. The story gives us a sweeping tale of young love that brought the characters together, but with a sinister edge. Muriel is a little bit out of control as a young woman; we see a scene where she puts herself in physical danger by leaning over a parapet, and tells young Robert that she sometimes feels overcome with intense feelings she cannot control, and asks him if he will always be there to catch her. This seems like more than youthful high spirits. He says yes, the two marry, and then he’s almost immediately sent off to war.

The story hints that her family has a history of puerperal insanity, and that Muriel can never become pregnant because it would be too dangerous for her. When Robert returns from war to find his young wife gallivanting with a bunch of young dandies, he rapes her1 and she gets pregnant. As she herself warned, she experiences severe mental distress after the delivery and ends up in an institution, reflecting the less than sympathetic view of post-partum mental health issues in the 1930s. Throughout the miniseries, we saw Robert Carne returning to visit her, obviously wanting to take her home, but afraid she might pose a threat to her daughter.

The belief that women would go insane as a result of childbirth, especially if they were fragile or ‘neurasthenic,’ was a very real thing and it often overrode actual mental health issues associated with childbirth. In the original novel South Riding is based upon, Carne’s marriage is framed as a tragedy because of his broken wife, but the truth of what was really going on there is actually a bit more complicated. The series kind of reinforced the novel, complete with making Muriel’s daughter very high strung and edgy; she reads to me as a character we are supposed to think is insane, or on the verge of becoming so. South Riding frames institutionalisation as a necessary evil to contain dangerous people and in fact the series ends with a scene of Muriel escorted into her former manor house, converted into an asylum after the death of Robert Carne.

Setting period shows can be challenging, as you cannot exactly embed commentary on what you depict without making it very clunky. In South Riding the handling of mental health was shown as possibly even a kindness, and I sort of suspect viewers were supposed to view it that way. Muriel and her daughter are both very classic depictions of mental illness as a scary, out of control thing with unplumbed depths and both are depicted as far too fragile and nervy to actually deal with the outside world. Whether the miniseries wanted to frame this as a consequence of their era or something innate to the characters is a bit unclear at times.

Meanwhile, Upstairs, Downstairs concluded its first series with the shocking revelation that the allegedly dead sister of Sir Hallam is in fact alive and well, but she’s in an institution. We haven’t seen a formal diagnosis, but she appears to have Down syndrome. Here, we are very much supposed to see this as a terrible thing. She’s locked away in a nice, quiet institution that might seem on the surface to be a safe, caring place, but she’s also surrounded in her lonely room by pictures of her family, and clearly longs to be with them. She knows her brother, but he doesn’t know her, and the show in no uncertain terms presents this in a condemnatory way.

The institutionalisation of family members with intellectual disabilities was very common well through the 1950s and continues to happen. Many of those cases also included lying to other family members about the situation, claiming that someone had died, for example. These family members were often left to rot in very unhealthy places, unlike the institution in Upstairs, Downstairs, and it’s an issue that’s only recently been widely confronted and discussed. The show did a good job of integrating actual historical material without being too heavy handed, and while presenting it in a way designed to spark critical responses and discussion.

Another mental illness storyline featured here as well, with the young daughter of Rachel, who appears to go into catatonia after the death of her mother. She doesn’t speak, has night terrors, and is clearly frightened of the world around her. The downstairs staff want to keep her in their home and be her second family, while Lady Agnes wants to get rid of her and put her away somewhere.

It’s an interesting highlight of class divides surrounding disability in this era, when the children of the wealthy were swept out of sight when they appeared unfit for public view, while lower class families had to keep disabled family members in place, even if they couldn’t always care for them. The alternative would have been a grim and dire ‘charitable institution.’ It’s clear that the events of Rachel’s death are traumatic for everyone, and the downstairs staff want to keep her daughter in a safe environment, one she knows, instead of surrendering her to the darkness of an unknown place.

Sir Hallam, intriguingly, is the egalitarian voice who bridges upstairs and downstairs in this case. The only reason he knows about his sister is because he goes to the institution to collect Rachel’s daughter and bring her home, and ends up stumbling on his sister when the staff make a mistake. I’ll be interested to see where the show picks up next season; will both characters be brought home, or will Sir Hallam be lectured about the error of his ways so the matter can be quietly dropped?

  1. In a rather disturbing scene that is underplayed to chilling effect, I might add.