Apologies for the lateness of this post, which contains spoilers through the January 22 episode of Downton Abbey due to Sundance-induced mania.
Ah, Downton Abbey. This week’s episode confirmed my suspicion that this show can be somewhat like its characters, endlessly mired in repetitive plots, but powerful none the less. I’m tired of seeing Thomas and Bates go at each other (though one would imagine Mosley’s disappointment will throw a wrench in that dynamic) and I hope (and suspect) Matthew and Mary’s state of denial will wrap itself up with some haste. But I appreciate Branson calling the question on Sybil, and Isobel calling the question on Cora, with two very different results.
Let’s take the latter first. I’m fascinated by the way Cora has undermined Isobel here, in just one of the many examples of how custom rules even in the unsettled atmosphere of wartime. Cora’s dug into her sense of herself as the lady of the estate, and is using that position to oust Isobel, who undoubtedly has more practical experience and better theories of management, from her post. Perhaps I’m being unfair, but I wonder how much of Cora’s positioning here is about genuine interest in veterans and their recovery or the poor and their access to food, and how much of it is about maintaining that self-image, about power. When she tries to avoid a conversation with Isobel, telling her, “Please, can it wait? I have a mountain to get through,” she’s stealing a match on Isobel’s role as the woman with a profession. And her curt dismissal of Isobel’s distress, her declarations that “If I am not appreciated here, I will seek some other place where I will make a difference…I cannot operate where I am not valued,” are a neat co-option of the modern idea of women having meaningful work. Cora is pretending to care about the kinds of emotional needs Isobel introduced her to, even as she’s stripping Isobel of her ability to fulfill them.
In a subtler, and I think less intentional way, Branson does the same thing to Sybil during their second conversation about his love for her. “What work? Bringing hot drinks to a lot of randy officers? It all comes down to whether you love me. The rest is detail,” he tells her. It’s a nasty dismissal of her attempts to become more engaged and to find meaningful work to do. And it’s also part of him sidestepping a larger question about whether his family would embrace her. Branson really is putting a lot of pressure on Sybil, telling her that he’d have open arms for her family when they come around after she marries him, and linking his ability to join the struggle he’s convinced Sybil is important by telling her “Truth is, I’ll stay at Downton until you agree to run away with me.” There’s no question that Mary is wrong in telling Sybil that “That is why one talks to chauffeurs, isn’t it? To arrange journeys by road?” and Violet is being condescending when she warns Sybil about inappropriate wartime friendships. But I hope the show explores the ways in which Branson’s own ordeals are somewhat compromised in the way he’s treating the woman he loves.
And speaking of compromise, I’m curious as to what will happen with Mary and Sir Richard, whose courtship demonstrates both the strengths and weaknesses of an advancing new age. “This is your beau? A man who lends money then uses it to blackmail the recipient?” Violet asks, horrified, when Mary reveals the real source of Lavinia’s involvement with him. When Mary explains that Sir Richard lives in a “tough world,” Violet wants to know “And you intend to join him?” In a way, it’s a critical question for all three Crawley girls, given that Edith and Sybil have already ventured tentatively into that rougher world on their own terms, and Mary would be the last to join them. That way may lie independence, freedom from past scandal, and perhaps even love. But it does mean leaving things behind, whether it’s the conventions of the gentry, or a family one loves very much. Progress isn’t cost-free.