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‘Downton Abbey’ Open Thread: Read The Signs As Best You Can

By Alyssa Rosenberg on February 11, 2013 at 9:03 am

"‘Downton Abbey’ Open Thread: Read The Signs As Best You Can"

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This post discusses plot points from the February 10 episode of Downton Abbey.

Last night’s super-sized Downton Abbey was a bit lumpy in places—the cricket match in particular felt like it might have been a richer subject several seasons down the line when we had a better sense of who actually lives not just upstairs and downstairs, but in the village. But the combination of two episodes that aired as individual hours in the UK let Downton ground Thomas’s story in a larger context of the ways in which sexual repression poorly serves men and women alike in 1920s England. As O’Brien conspires to lure Thomas to Jimmy’s room, Edith finds herself drawn to Gregson, and Matthew worries about his potential fertility, this episode was a reminder that, medically and socially, an inability to speak honestly about sex has terrible consequences.

Edith’s latest romantic adventures begin as professional ones. After Gregson writes her to inquire again after her availability as a columnist, she declares “I think I will go. It seems rude not to, in a way. And I haven’t been to London for ages.” Her family continues to be less than entirely supportive. As her grandmother puts it, “A woman’s place is in the home, but I see nothing wrong in her having some fun before she gets there. And another thing, Edith isn’t getting any younger. Maybe she isn’t cut out for domestic life.” But as it turns out, confining a woman to domestic life might also keep her from running across promising romantic prospects. When she and Gregson meet for lunch, Gregson admits to her “Am I allowed to say I’m pleased you’re not married?” “I’m a little less pleased,” Edith tells him. But she doesn’t leave the lunch and she takes the job—and she doesn’t quit it when Gregson remarks “You look very pretty today. I’m not sure how professional it is for me to point that out.”

It’s a relationship that brings out the best in both of them. Edith dares not just to write, but to take on subjects that no one would have expected her, like the lack of employment opportunities for soldiers returned home from the war, not all of whom are so lucky to amble into managing an estate, as Matthew has done. “I like the idea of a woman taking a position on man’s subject,” Gregson tells her. “I think we’re on to something new, here. The mature female voice in debates.” And it’s good for them personally—to a point. Edith comes out of her shell enough to enjoy a flirtation and to talk honestly about her experience being jilted. Gregson clearly enjoys her company as a colleague and as a woman. But when she inquires into his background, she discovered not just that he’s married, but how English law has inconvenienced him. Gregson is a decent man, but there’s something profoundly unfair about the law that shackles him to his wife because she’s too mentally ill to give consent to their divorce, and there appears to be no treatment that can make her well enough to set him free. Sir Anthony hurt Edith horribly because he couldn’t bear to tell her in a definitive way that he didn’t actually feel comfortable being with her. Gregson at least finds the courage to tell her the truth, but not after leading her down a disappointing path. What happens next may depend on how comfortable Edith feels defying convention. It’s one thing for her flighty cousin to convince herself a married member of the nobility is going to leave his wife for her, and another to go into a relationship like this one with your eyes open.

She isn’t the only member of her family who’s running into trouble because of words unspoken and honesty that’s beyond reach. Matthew, convinced that he became infertile during the war, seeks out medical help, only to find out that Mary’s gone for treatment behind his back. “There was something wrong with, actually, I can’t talk about this sort of thing, not even to you,” she confesses over lunch. “The fact is, it meant a small operation. It’s all right. It was weeks ago. That’s why I’ve been keeping you at arms length.” As relieved as he is by her good news, Mary’s reticence has hurt Matthew’s feelings, even if it’s in a small and rectifiable way. “I thought you’d gone off me,” Matthew explains to her. Men are as capable of feeling undesirable and rejected as women.

And the rejection that Thomas suffers when he believes he’s been invited to Jimmy’s room is vastly more consequential. But the risk of him being fired and let go without a reference, or even taken to prison, brings out compassion in surprising quarters, in some cases, aided by conservative attitudes. For Lord Grantham, homosexuality’s a test of whether a man reacts to events with a sense of proportion. “If I yelled blue murder every time someone tried to kiss me at Eaton, I’d be hoarse in a month,” he tells Bates. Carson tells Alfred, who’s gotten his dander up, something rather similar: “The world can be a shocking place, Alfred. But you are a man now, and must learn to take it on the chin.” His preference for keeping quiet is motivated by the fact that for Carson, a disturbance to his family weighs more heavily on his mind than any need to punish or correct Thomas.

Carson’s attitude towards homosexuality echoes the belief that sexuality is a matter of nature rather than nurture or choice that’s the basis of the enlightened views that have made so much progress today. “You have been twisted by nature into something foul, and even I can see you did not ask for it,” Carson tells Thomas. He’s not the only one whose general disgust with Thomas’s sexuality is overriden by other concerns. When Bates see Thomas “well and truly beaten,” this old enemy has a change of heart. “You don’t even like Thomas,” Anna tells him. But Bates explains that he’s moved to act, blackmailing O’Brien with his knowledge of her trick with Cora’s bar of soap and her miscarried pregnancy, “Because I know what it is to feel powerless, to see a life slide away and know there’s nothing you can do to stop it.” Thomas may think he’s alone, that “When you’re like me, Mr. Carson, you have to read the signs as best you can, because none dare speak out.” But he has more in common with Gregson and Edith and Matthew and Mary, all of whom are grappling through the darkness to find sexual happiness.

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