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‘Downton Abbey’ Open Thread: Ladies and Newspapers

By Alyssa Rosenberg on January 28, 2013 at 9:03 am

"‘Downton Abbey’ Open Thread: Ladies and Newspapers"

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This post discusses plot points through the January 27 episode of Downton Abbey.

I was on the road when the January 20 episode of Downtown Abbey aired, so this week, I’ll consider both hours of television together. And while the show does have a tendency to skip around—in time, in location, in tone and quality—these two episodes, taken together, offer up a strong illustration of the difficulties of making yourself heard, whether it’s across the gender barrier, upwards across class lines, or through an arbitrarily-imposed bureaucracy. The consequences of those enforced silences, as we saw this weekend, are fatal.

Anna and Bates’ story has fairly definitively stalled out for me at this point in Downton Abbey‘s run, but Bates’ stint in prison has been a nice little parallel to events at Downton itself. He’s a different kind of downstairs now, bound by a different set of social constraints. Inmates have different routes to influence than they did in the big house, where service to one of the principals of the household gave them direct access to air their opinions, if they were carefully stated. And the principals of the household had been raised from childhood to be used to having power, and to exercising it in certain ways, whether it’s to smooth the advancement of certain members of the household staff within the house, or to make interventions in their health and welfare outside the realm of service, as with the surgery for Mrs. Patmore’s contacts or Cora’s promise that Mrs. Hughes would be provided for even if cancer treatment failed to prove effective. But in prison, the guards and wardens are new to power and are primarily concerned with aggregating it. Where the Downtown residents’ acts of kindness to the people they have power over don’t constitute a wholly reliable social safety net or engine of upward mobility, they at least provide a reliable set of cues about incentives and rewards. In prison, something like the withholding of Bates’ letters is meant to enforce the arbitrary nature of his position, to encourage him to be utterly cowed lest he break an unwritten rule or violate a norm. It’s yet another one of Downton‘s reminder that however limited the opportunities are for people in service, falling out of that hierarchy can be even worse.

But it’s one thing to fall out of a hierarchy that provides you with a minimum of status, and another to reach the top of your privilege and find that some of the marginal gains aren’t worth the sacrifice that goes along with them. After Lady Edith found herself jilted at the altar and committed herself to a useful spinsterhood, I emailed a friend that I thought she might break out of society’s role for her, albeit in a more sedate way than Sybil had by eloping. Some of her initial changes are small. “Why don’t you have breakfast in bed?” Matthew asks her when she comes down to dine with him and Lord Grantham. “Because I’m not married,” Edith tells him shortly. It’s a position that provides her with some embarrassment, but it also puts her in the position of being the lone young woman in company with the men of her household, and in a position to voice frustrations about things like suffrage. “I don’t have the vote,” she tells Matthew, bitterly. “I’m not over 30 and I’m not a householder. It’s ridiculous.” His suggestion that she write to the Times may be flip, but it’s certainly more productive than Lord Grantham’s reminder that Edith really ought to talk to Cora about how she can help with the evening’s dinner. The Dowager Countess may tell Edith that “You’re a woman with a brain and reasonable ability. Stop whining, and find something to do,” but I don’t know if she recognizes that dinners and local charitable patronage still might leave Edith empty.

And so there’s something tremendously exciting about seeing Edith take Matthew’s advice, and for once, get rewarded for making extra effort by the Times, if not by her family. “No lady writes to a newspaper,” Violet declares, before amending that statement to remind Edith that one who does is “A Churchill. The Churchills are different.” Cora tells Edith that “It’s good to have strong views, but noteriety is never helpful.” In other words, Edith is entitled to her feelings, but not the exercise of them, and should accept her gilded cage. And when the letter is published, under the title “Earl’s Daughter Speaks Out For Women’s Rights,” Edith may still be categorized by her relationship to her father, but for once, she’s using that power to get what she wants, instead of letting it define her sphere of influence. So what if “That’s what he’s buying, your name and your title,” as Lord Grantham puts it: Edith is getting something out of the bargain, too.

And as it turns out, “the problems faced by the modern woman rather than the fall of the Ottoman Empire,” aren’t an “even so.” They become urgent when Sybil goes into labor and Lord Grantham quashes the voices of women and Dr. Clarkson when it comes to their care, opting for class and gender solidarity instead. It’s awful to hear Lord Grantham say “I don’t want to hurt Sir Phillip’s feelings,” as if that were the most important issue at stake here, even when it seemed like Sybil’s delivery would go normally. And it’s worse to find out that Sir Phillip is essentially in agreement with Lord Grantham on the importance of his own expertise and status. His snapping at Dr. Clarkson, who has know Sybil her entire life, “Maybe she has thick ankles. Lots of women do,” is the Downton equivalent of advocating an aspirin between the knees as a contraceptive. It’s a refusal to see Sybil as a specific person, and to embrace the actual practice of medicine in favor of the performance of sagacity. And it kills her.

The characters’ reactions to her death are illustrative. Matthew refuses to believe Dr. Clarkson that “There’s nothing to be done.” As he pushes for scientific management of the estate, even on Sybil’s deathbed, he tells the doctor “That’s not possible. Not now, not these days.” Her death is a rude shock. Cora exiles her husband from her bed, telling her oldest daughter “Mary, could you ask your father to sleep in the dressing room tonight,” and then speaking out bluntly, directing her words at Mary but intending the for her husband’s ears. “If we’d listened to him, Sybil might still be alive. But your father and Sir Phillip knew better.” Strong opinions, it seems, aren’t always better left penned up so a woman might avoid notoriety. Downstairs, Carson and Mrs. Hughes reach for each other in their grief, and Thomas, who all season has been feuding with his former ally O’Brien, acknowledges the loss. “I don’t know why I”m crying, really,” he tells Anna initially. “She wouldn’t have noticed if I’d died.” “You don’t mean that,” Anna tells him. And he admits it’s true. “No, I don’t,” he says. “In my life, I can tell you, not many have been kind to me. She was one of the few.”

And the two remaining sisters have a confrontation that may be telling for the rest of the series. “She was the only person living who always thought that you and I were such nice people,” Mary reflects to Edith. “Oh, Mary. Do you think you and I might get along better in the future?” Edith asks. “I doubt it,” Mary says. But since this is the last time all three of us will be together in this life, let’s love each other now, like sisters should.” She may sound cruel, but she’s right: she and Edith may not have gotten along because they were sisters, but they’re diverging now because they represent fundamentally different perspectives. Lady Mary’s committed to tradition, even to the point of putting off Matthew’s concerns about how to make Downton profitable out of respect for her father. And Edith seems like she might be breaking away from family tradition entirely, from fast cars and dalliances with married farmers, to letters to the editor. Mary will mourn her baby sister. But I can’t wait to see what kind of newspaper column Edith gets out of Sybil’s death, whether it’s this season, or many years from now.

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