TV’s Great Women Part IV: Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham and the Turn of an Era

I went into this thinking I was going to write about Gemma Teller Morrow, and the Queen herself will definitely get plenty of attention in an upcoming Sons of Anarchy week. But I’m not quite caught up on the show yet, in part because I got distracted along the way by a woman who reminds me a lot of Gemma: the Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham. Maggie Smith is a genius, of course, and the Dowager Countess has become one of the most famous and impressive zinger machines in any form of popular culture. But beyond the barbs, Violet is a fascinating model for women in television that upsets the norms on everything from age, to sexual involvement, to deployment of power. Watching her grapple with modernity is one of the most creative and moving long arc plots any network’s put on television in years.

The first and most obvious thing that makes Violet—and consequently her storylines—so different from almost anything else we see on television, is her age, and the corollary to it, her widowhood. Every other woman we’ve talked about in this series has been in her teens and twenties. I spend a fair amount of time arguing that we need to tell stories about women who are single or prioritizing their careers or intellectual commitments over the search for romance, or who are confident who they are instead of going on heroes’ journeys. But it is absolutely true that there are common experiences and processes that people tend to go through during those years, simply by virtue of leaving high school, going to college, and entering the economy. And those stories can vary broadly in the details, but there are powerful tropes about all of those processes, and it’s extremely hard to find something new in them or achieve escape velocity from them. The easiest way to tell different kinds of stories about women is to tell stories about different kinds of women. And while we often talk about different kinds of women in terms of race or class, telling stories about women in different stages of life opens up different arcs and issues.

Unlike questing twenty-somethings, the Dowager Countess of Grantham has a sense of herself that’s been fixed by time and consolidated by money and position. Violet’s beyond sex and marriage—at least for herself—though she’s manifestly confident in the wisdom that experience has given her about both. When she says things about Sybil not being entitled to her opinions “until she is married—then her husband will tell her what her opinions are,” it’s an example of retrograde thinking, but it also comes from a set of developed convictions about how to preserve harmony. Her instruction to Cora that “We are allies, my dear, which can be a good deal more effective,” comes from the same place. She didn’t have the opportunities that her granddaughters do to make errors and recover from them. The rules that govern her life are the result of figuring out what makes life, if not easy, less emotionally difficult.

And it’s fascinating to see what happens when, after someone’s gone through the process of being uncertain and crafting an iron-clad self, the world changes and makes those rules less necessary, even ridiculous. When Violet and Cora talk about how angry Violet gets when her rules are violated, that anger comes out of two very different places. First, breaking the rules by doing things like having premarital sex with Turkish diplomats who die in your bed, carries greater risk in Violet’s world than it does in, say, her granddaughter Mary’s. It makes sense that Violet would be not just disturbed by the mess her granddaughter’s created, but afraid for her. The world is changing such that Mary may survive it (based on what we’ve seen in the American air schedule), but neither she nor Violet know that for sure yet. And second, it must be terrifying to see the world order change around you and to realize that your rules may not be relevant, they may not guide you correctly any longer, and to face, at an advanced age, the prospect of reinventing yourself. That process in your teens and twenties is fantastically difficult, and we like to think that we only have to do it once.

So it’s a mark of Violet’s strength that she can adjust. When she acknowledges to Cora that she wouldn’t have had the fortitude to move a dead body and cover up an inconvenient death, she’s simultaneously admitting a lack of capacity and laying the foundation to build it. Her support of Sybil’s nursing career may come out of the wrong place when she tells Cora “You can’t pretend it’s not respectable when every day we’re treated to pictures of queens and princesses in a Red Cross uniform.” But it’s still striking to see her sitting on the same side of the carriage as Isobel and standing with her even if their justifications come from a different place. When she declares that she forbids Downton Abbey to become a convalescent home, it’s a sad moment not just because it’s a retrograde reaction to the demands of the war, but because we’re seeing Violet bump up against the limitations of her expanded perspective. Defeat can be a much more interesting emotion than victory.

But Violet’s not only interesting because she’s a fully-formed person going through the process of evaluating how her sense of herself and her world will serve her in a former age. She’s a powerful person with some blind spots about her influence who is learning how to exert her authority more effectively and humanely in old age. In The Diana Chronicles, Tina Brown writes of the British monarchy that “It’s not an office, it’s an incarnation.” And there’s an extent to which the Dowager Countess and Queen Elizabeth are very much the same person, with the Great War and Isobel Crawley playing the same role for Violet as Diana’s death played for Elizabeth.

Violet’s rivalry with Isobel is one of the great competitions between women I’ve seen on-screen, and a fascinating duel of expertise and perception. There’s no question that Isobel reinvigorates the hospital, helping to modernize it, and that her medical expertise saves lives. If she’d been born a generation later, she could have at least been a professional nurse, and maybe even could have been a doctor. But Violet’s correct diagnosis when Isobel makes a mistake, relying on science and ignoring traditional medicine, is a reminder that there’s real value in folk knowledge. And Isobel’s forcing Violet to realize that she’s winning the prize for best bloom because everyone’s afraid not to give it to her is a marvelous illustration of how hard it is to remove the blinders of privilege. Winning won’t improve either Violet’s fortune or William Mosely’s, but the show is very careful to show what the pride of winning means to each of them. Violet believes that her victory is her chance to participate in and be validated by the meritocracy, rather than a reaffirmation of her position in the area. For Mosely, victory would be proof that meritocracy can, occasionally, work. When Violet confronts the fact that she’s being babied, she does the right thing. In the grander scheme of things, a true British meritocracy would improve William Mosely’s life and make Violet’s more difficult, but at least in the short term, she’s able to share his principals.

Downton Abbey is a story about how the world changes, first individually and then all at once. Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham, is the character who will benefit least from this new era: she’ll live the shortest amount of her life in in, and she has the most privilege to lose. But to see her soldier forward into it, with all her failures and limitations, is a testament to the power of history, and to her determination.