Rosemary Hill writes:
In the first series of ‘Sh!t the Dowager Countess Says’, the YouTube compilation of Maggie Smith’s one-liners from Downton Abbey, she asks, drily: ‘What is a weekend?’ Cue eye-rolling around his lordship’s dining table and smirks from viewers. But the countess was perhaps not being disingenuous for once, given that at this point in the loose chronology of Downton it is supposed to be about 1920 and she is going on eighty. Nobody born in 1840, in any class, would have heard the word before they reached middle age. In 1879 a correspondent to Notes and Queries wondered if it was a dialect term. In Staffordshire, he explained, ‘if a person leaves home … on the Saturday afternoon to spend the evening of Saturday and the following Sunday with friends … he is said to be spending his week-end at So-and-so. I am informed that this name for Saturday and the day which comes between a Saturday and Monday is confined to this district.’ By 1929 the weekend was an established national fact, but still decidedly modern, often with racy connotations. When Edward Prince of Wales asked his father, George V, if he could have the use of Fort Belvedere at Windsor the king was surprised: ‘What could you possibly want that queer old place for? Those damn week-ends I suppose.’ He caved in and perhaps regretted it, for the weekends with their associated guests and amusements made possible the affair with Wallis Simpson and so led eventually to the abdication.