History Department
History Department

Philppa Levine interviewed by NPR on "Downton Abbey" and the future of energy

Fri, February 24, 2012
Philppa Levine interviewed by NPR on
Photo credits appear at end of article.

Original story appears in StateImpact Texas, Feb. 18. Reported by Terrence Henry.

History Professor Philippa Levine, who holds the Mary Helen Thompson Centennial Professorship in the Humanities and is Co-Director of the British Studies Program, was interviewed earlier this week by StateImpact Texas, a reporting project of local media and NPR. The article looks at the endearing PBS program "Downton Abbey" and how it may tell us something about the future of energy and the best way to adapt to it.

The following is an excerpt from the interview. The complete article can be read and streamed at the link below.
. . .

"… Like many technologies, early adopters [of electricity] were a select group. 'The only people who would have had residential electricity or any type of power during that time are incredibly wealthy people, as you’ll see in the show,' says Phillippa Levine, co-director of the British Studies program at the University of Texas. 'I mean it really is a sliver of the population who can afford this at this point. They are as we would say off the grid, because the national grid, which is what produces electricity potentially for everyone in Britain, is built in the 1930s.

Those that could afford it were sometimes stymied by it, much like the Dowager Countess and her fear of inhaling electric vapors. 'I couldn’t have electricity in the house,' she remarks during the first season. 'I wouldn’t sleep a wink. All those vapors seeping about.' And she wasn’t alone in being afraid of the new technology. 'People had fears that electricity was going to leak out of the walls, leak out of plug points,' Levine says. 'I remember my father saying things like that when I was a tiny girl.' It was this 'mysterious, invisible thing that nobody really understood,' she says, and it scared everyone in a new kind of way. And like the Dowager Countess, many were hesitant to see its benefits at first. 'Oh, such a glare,' she says while gazing up at an electric chandelier. 'I feel as if I were on stage at the Gaiety.'

The generators that provided standalone electricity to homes in the era of Downton Abbey were messy, loud devices, Levine says, and so they were relegated to the basement, where much of the servile work was done away from the family’s eyes. 'The generators would almost certainly have been in that part of the house, because they would have been making a noise, they might have been smelly,' Levine says. 'And it doesn’t matter, of course, if the servants are inconvenienced, because you certainly aren’t going to inconvenience your guests.' "

Terrence Henry, reporter for StateImpact Texas, published the complete article here:

Photo of Prof. Levine by Marsha Miller, Office of the President. Photo of Highclere Castle (Downton Abbey) from Wikimedia Commons.


Professor Philippa Levine's faculty home page:

Downton Abbey, from Materpiece Theatre:

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