The story opens in 1940. WWII has officially begun.
Carson and his wife are visited at their home by former house-staff, Anna and Bates, who had left Downton Abby years before to live in America but have returned and decided to settle back in the village they once called home. They ask after Lord and Lady Grantham. Carson is surprised that they are completely unaware of the untimely death of Lady Grantham who after receiving a phone call from USA telling of the brother’s passing made plans for a quick visit to America. As a result of her brother’s death, she became sole heir, to what remained of the family fortune, (Newport Mansion and all) and needed to meet with American lawyers. Arrangements were put in place for her to travel to Germany and board the Hindenburg, the latest travel marvel that could have her to and back from America in a week, so she would not
miss the coronation of King George. Anna and Bates expressions are filled with dread. They didn’t need a reminder of the tragedy of the Hindenburg on the 6th of May, 1937. Mrs. Hughes (now Mrs. Carson) wonders if perhaps the Downton legacy is an ill fated one, destined for tragedy—first the Titanic, then the car accident, fortunes lost in an ill-advised railroad investment and now the Hindenburg.
It was well over a year since England entered WWII. The children are all young adults, several of whom are eligible for military service. That includes Master George. He is an officer and becomes close mates with fellow senior officer, Frederick, who is a bit older, but the two develop a close bond. They have in common that they both lost their fathers at a young age—Freddie’s father in the war (WWI) and George’s father in an auto accident on the day he was born. George is more than a little surprised to learn that Freddie attended all the best schools, as he had prefaced the conversation with the fact that his mother was a widowed housemaid. He explained to George, that thanks to the generosity of a Lord of a grand house where his mother once worked, (intimating a potential romance between the Lord of the manor and his mother) the gentleman had arranged to finance his education and even went so far as to facilitate his admission into the best schools. His mother never told him the benefactor’s name, but he is committed that he will one day find out and thank the gentleman.
The two officers are on the train heading home for leave. Freddie needs to connect at Bampton for yet another train —when they learn that there is a problem on the track, and the connecting train has been cancelled. Freddie says he’ll simply need to spend the night in Bampton and head out in the morning. George insists on taking Freddie home with him to Downton, where he can spend the night, explaining that in the morning they’ll have a driver take him back to the station and he can then resume his journey home. He explains that he can ring up his mother and let her know of the delay, sure that she will be happy he will be comfortably welcomed at Downton.
Mary and her new husband, Henry Talbot, now have two daughters. We meet them at 13 and 10 years old, already displaying an intense rivalry that takes the rivalry which was the hallmark of Mary and Edith’s relationship to a new level. Predictably one is quite pretty and social and the other, attractive enough but on the quiet side. Cousin Marigold often finds herself mediating between them—but her affection for her two siblings is not reciprocated by the youngsters. Marigold is very much like her Aunt Sybil in demeanor and not well adapted to the cattiness of her young nieces.
Meanwhile Tom Branson, the chauffeur who married Sybil has, not unexpectedly developed a relationship with Lucy Smith, daughter of Maud, Lady Bagshaw. They have since married. They are talking of a visit to Downton, for a family reunion of sorts—to cheer up Lord Grantham. Sybbie begs to join them on the visit to Downton. She longs to visit “Donk” and is sure she can make him smile. When they are met at the station by the chauffeur, and it is clear that there is some kind of connection between Sybbie and the driver. Her father, Tom, immediately recognizes the early flirtatious behaviours that characterized his own romance with her mother, Sybil. He later pulls Lord Grantham aside, seeking his advice and counsel about “the problem.” The irony is inescapable and makes for a charming and warm scene between the two.
Meanwhile, Bertie and Edith Pelham, the Marquess and Marchioness of Hexham have a growing family of their own and have managed to avoid gossip over Marigold’s parentage. Edith has sold the magazine left to her by Marigold’s father, and made a tidy fortune for herself, improving her own marital financial underpinnings. But, as with ever, Edith’s newfound optimism surrounding her own fairy-tale ending is disrupted when a lawyer enters the scene, purportedly representing Mrs. Gregson, wife, now no longer in an insane asylum, of Edith’s former lover, Michael Gregson. She threatens to expose the child’s parentage and humiliate the Marquess and Marchioness, if she doesn’t get the fair share of her husband’s estate. Her lawyer is none other than the grandson of Lord Merton—whose own son was despicable and bore intense dislike for the entire Grantham clan, from his rejection by Sybil as a young man, to his father’s liaison with Lady Crawley (now Lady Merton). That resentment has been planted in his son, who displays the same despicable behavior of his father. Lady Merton feels some somewhat to blame for Edith’s woes for he has fastened upon the Granthams’ weakest link to vent his animus. Lord Merton is frail, but not afraid, and conjures up something to shut-down his son’s animus for once and for all.
And so you see, with or without Mr. Fellowes, there’s stuff going on at Downton Abbey!