This post contains spoilers through the January 29 episode of Downton Abbey.
Downton Abbey spends much of its time exploring changing roles in a world at war, particularly for women. But this week’s episode, one of the best in the season, seemed to me to be particularly good at exploring what choices were and weren’t available to these women we’ve come to know and care about so much, and the way the people around them conspire to limit their choices, ostensibly for their own good. It’s fitting that the episode began with images of Daisy and Mary bound by fate rather than choice as Matthew and William are terribly injured in France. “Someone walked over my grave,” a suddenly stricken Daisy tells Mrs. Patmore, and Mary drops a cup of tea in the drawing room, telling the family startled by her loss of composure that “I suddenly felt terribly cold.”
I wrote two weeks ago that it was awful to see Daisy trapped into marriage by everyone at Downton’s sense of her own good. This week, everyone conspires to make William’s dying wish to wed her before his death come true. “He was happy to think they were true!” Mrs. Patmore says of the lies she encouraged Daisy to tell. Daisy isn’t the only one whose true consent is not considered particularly important. When the vicar worries about a gravely injured William’s ability to truly express his intentions, a riled-up Violet, who’s already taken on the medical establishment and the military, takes him to task. “Can I remind you, William Mason has served our family well? At the last, he saved the life if not the health of my son’s heir,” she lays down the law. “You cannot imagine that we would allow you to prevent this to happen…You living is Lord Grantham’s gift. Your house is on Lord Grantham’s land…I hope you can find some way to overcome your scruples.” In the end, it’s really only William who is thinking of Daisy’s ability to have choices, even if they’re choices after he’s gone, when he says that they should marry so she can have his pension after his death. “It won’t be much, but I’ll know you have something to fall back on,” William tells Daisy, becoming truly worthy of her love, or at least her affection. Seeing Ethel and Jane’s plights in a world without a man, that’s no small thing to leave Daisy, who lacks both those women’s force of personality.
While Daisy’s getting railroaded into a wedding, Lavinia’s being denied the one she badly wants. It’s striking that Dr. Clarkson takes Lord Grantham aside to inform him not just as Lord Grantham says, “You mean there can be no children?” but that there can be “no anything.” The continuation of the family line takes precedence over any individual woman’s happiness. And once again, a man makes decisions that he insists are for a woman’s own good. “I love you so much for saying it,” Matthew tells Lavinia when she insists that despite his paralysis, she wants to be with him. “But there’s something else that may not have occurred to you. We can never be properly married…It’s not important now. But it will be. And it should be.” It’s a terrible knot: there’s something admirable in Matthew insisting that Lavinia has a right to sexual happiness. But it’s dreadfully paternalistic in him making that decision for her despite the fact that she isn’t allowed to have the life experience that would give her the knowledge to weigh all the elements of her choice. “I couldn’t marry her now. I couldn’t marry any woman,” Matthew tells Mary later, revealing the challenge may be less his concern for Lavinia’s well-being than his own self-loathing. “And if they just wanted to be with you?” Mary asks, cleaning up his vomit and tending him with a solicitousness that would have been impossible when we first met her. “On any terms?” “It’s nothing,” Mary tells Isobel of her nursing when Isobel finally arrives at Matthew’s bedside. “Sybil’s the nurse in the family.” But Isobel knows something important has occurred. “It’s the very opposite of nothing,” Isboel insists, referring less to Mary’s specific actions and more to her arrival into being the kind of person who can truly think wisely about her own and other’s happinesses.
Evidence of that inequality between men and women is everywhere. The Major can refuse to acknowledge his child with Ethel and reap nothing but the disapproval of Mrs. Hughes: his ability to choose comes at the price of a double cost to her, the inability to do anything but have the baby, and the choices that event robs her of in the future. As much as Vera Bates is totally the worst, Sir Richard’s manipulation of her is a stark reminder of what happens when the advantages of gender are multiplied by the advantages of money and class (Violet, of course, is a reminder that those same factors can erase the gender gap). And Branson’s continuing to insist that everything rests with Sybil, without really acknowledging the costs she faces, telling her ” Sometimes a hard sacrifice must be made for a future that’s worth having. That’s all I’m saying. It’s up to you.” Would that it were. Would that it may be.