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I Took A Downton Abbey: A New Era Etiquette Class And Now I Feel So Uncultured

The full cast in Downton Abbey: A New Era 2022
(Image credit: Focus Features)

Society may have cut loose a little more during the Jazz Age, but thankfully, the Crawleys were still focused on the important things, like holding a soup spoon in the right way. A hundred years later, times have changed, and a lot of these classy protocols have been lost, especially on an American bumpkin like me. I don’t have quite the posh accent or the talent for sitting still  the characters in Downton Abbey possess. Fortunately, I was able to take an etiquette class ahead of A New Era's streaming, Digital, DVD, 4K and Blu-ray release on July 5th with an eye toward being a little more like Lady Mary and less like Myrna Dalgleish. 

If you watch Downton Abbey and its newest big screen adventure A New Era, you’ve likely seen many of these proper flourishes in the background of dinner scenes and social occasions. I thought I’d be able to follow along during my visit to the gorgeous Belchamp Hall, which hosted Tom and Lucy’s wedding in the new movie, but it sadly turns out I’m a lot more uncultured than I thought. In fact, damn near everything I do at the dinner table would have the Dowager Countess throwing out some classic barbs in the same way she did when Mary was bringing movie people into Downton for the first time. From how I hold my fork to how I hold conversations, here’s a quick (and embarrassing) rundown of some of the rules my mother didn’t teach me growing up...

Photo of Belchamp Hall in UK where Downton Abbey: A New Era filmed.

(Image credit: Jessica Rawden)

Don't Lick The Knife!

Philip Sykes of the British School of Excellence was on hand at Belchamp Hall where a portion of the latest movie filmed. As dining is important to the movies and the period itself, he shared some of the rules of his trade and of the Downton era with myself and a handful of other journalists. In one of these tidbits, he revealed that a dab of butter should always be transferred from its centralized dish onto a plate and not straight onto one’s roll first. In addition, a person must never lick his or her knife. Real talk: If you need an indication of what type of person I am, when I said this I giggled and asked, “People lick their knives?” He sternly told me not to joke (I would never!), and asking around, apparently this is a common thing some people do. 

So, ½ a point to me for being a gal who doesn’t lick her knife, I guess. However, if I were at a dinner table with the Dowager Countess herself, I’d probably be buttering my bread directly in her face. This would then be enough to warrant her taking dinner in her room, as she did when Lady Mary headed to the pictures for the evening in Downton Abbey: A New Era.

Downton Abbey A New Era cast react to news.

(Image credit: Universal Pictures)

Your Posture, It Indubitably Sucks

Unless you trained for hours a day to become a ballet dancer or have had etiquette training yourself, your posture is probably terrible. There’s the common issue of slouching, of course, but more importantly: Did you know you aren’t actually supposed to sit all the way back in your chair at the dinner table? You need your core to hold your spine as straight as Lady Mary’s and that means sitting forward in the seat.

Some of the stars of Downton Abbey may be crossing their legs at the ankle, but for all you knee crossers out there, you’re doing it wrong. 

Downton Abbey: A New Era Cast on the way to the French Riviera.

(Image credit: Universal Pictures)

How To Hold A Proper Conversation With Other "Lords" And "Ladies," Per Downton Abbey

This one actually did come up in a previous Downton Abbey project. Apparently, in polite society, if at a dinner table you’re supposed to spend 50% of the time speaking to the person on your left and 50% speaking to the person on your right. Per Mr. Sykes, this came up once when Tom got very interested in Lucy and ignored the person on his other side, gaining him a harrumph. I guess Tom got the last laugh though, as he ultimately got the girl. (We also got a look at the setup for Tom and Lucy’s very successful wedding at Belchamp Hall, which also hosts events, and it was  a gorgeous scene, so alls well that ends in Downton nuptials.) 

Still, the jury’s out on what one should do at a four-top.

Dame Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey

(Image credit: ITV)

Yes, Virginia, There Is A Proper Way To Eat Soup

Soup. It’s hot. It’s viscous. It gets everywhere in your mouth. But before it does whatever it wants in your throat, you are supposed to command its attention by holding your spoon the correct way. I’m willing to bet most of us push soup toward our body to fill his or her spoon, but one is actually supposed to push the soup away from ones body and toward the edge of the bowl. And by all means, don’t blow on hot soup! 

Maggie Smith’s Dowager Countess famously tasted soup in a Season 5 episode of Downton Abbey before the events in A New Era. She crushed the pushing the soup away from your body portion, but I do think I detect her blowing on the soup! 

Philip Sykes is an expert on etiquette in the Downton Abbey era.

(Image credit: Universal Pictures)

That Knife That Looks Like A Butter Knife Is In Actuality Probably Not A Butter Knife (Except When It Is) 

So, butter knives do exist and most of us know what they look like, but at certain fancy functions there’s a knife that looks very much like a butter knife (opens in new tab), only it is indeed for filleting fish. (Again, don’t lick your knife!) According to etiquette expert Philip Sykes, please don’t fall prey to this trick, particularly if you are following the rules of starting with the outside cutlery and working your way in.

Allegedly, this utensil was created to be able to squeeze more money from the folks who had it, though by the time we get to Downton Abbey: A New Era’s time period and setting in the late twenties, I wonder if Lord Grantham and Lady Mary would have been happy to save a buck or five and cut the fish knives. They have a roof to repair, people! 

Downton Abbey cast eating at the dinner table

(Image credit: Universal Pictures)

Lefties In The U.S. Are Probably Way Better At Eating Than Moi 

This one may be no big deal to you British folk out there, but Americans are going to have a tough one with this. According to proper etiquette, one should hold their fork with their left hand and their knife with their right and eat accordingly. This is shown correctly in practically every Downton Abbey eating scene ever, but alas, those of us who aren’t left-handed in America love to do things the right (handed) way. 

I know, it’s quite a lot to take in. The good news? If you need a brush-up on what is quite the thing in polite society and what isn’t, A New Era is already available streaming exclusively with a Peacock subscription or available on Digital (opens in new tab) with a slew of bonus features, including "Return to Downton Abbey: The Making-of A New Era" and much, much more.

In additional, Universal Pictures Home Entertainment is also making the film available on 4K, Blu-ray and DVD starting on July 5 2022. If hard copy is your favorite, you can pre-order Downton Abbey: A New Era (opens in new tab) now. 

Jessica Rawden
Jessica Rawden

Amazing Race & Top Chef superfan with a pinch of Disney fairy dust thrown in. Theme park junkie. If you’ve created a rom-com I’ve probably watched it.