This post discusses plot details from the January 13 episode of Downton Abbey.
As I was discussing last week’s episode of Downton Abbey and its opening of a larger discussion about the economic role of the estate with a friend, he pointed out something that’s absolutely true. Downton may provide a lot of employment opportunities, but the show about the house is also a story about how the remnants of a feudal economic system shut certain people out of playing productive roles that could have made good use of their talents. Women, in Downton Abbey, are objects of trade rather than economic actors: they’re passed from father to husband, with money attached. And while Lady Mary is suited to make the best and most of that transactional role, and Sybil escaped it by marrying out of the economic system proscribed for women, there’s no better illustration of the waste this system produces than Lady Edith.
Edith’s chasing after Sir Anthony has made her something of a joke, both in her family, and in the show, for three seasons. But for the very reason that it seems ridiculous that Edith would marry an old, wounded man, it makes sense that she is attracted to him, particularly given the way her freedom to work and to be out in the world contracted after the end of the war. His physical infirmities give Edith more to do in their marriage than an able-bodied husband would: she’ll have to care for him, his house to renovate, their family to represent in the world. The Dowager Countess may insist that “Edith is beginning her life as an old man’s drudge. I should thought a large drawing room no compensation.” But that drudgery is better than life as a simple, dumb ornament.
It’s interesting to see Edith try to reassure herself in the runup to the wedding that this is enough, even if it doesn’t compare in excitement to smooching a farmer in his barn, or to driving herself. “Something happening in this house is actually about me,” she declares, in both a commentary on her actual role in Downton Abbey, and in a family where her marriage rates only the local minister, her reputation has been expendable enough to allow her to work outside the home in extraordinary circumstances, and where she lacks the courage to reach for a real rebellion. “ All of us married, all of us happy, and the first baby on the way,” she tells her sisters the morning of her wedding, having caught up to them in their wedded state, if not having found the sort of self-actualization in marriage that Mary and Sybil did. Even as Anthony jilts her, she’s both trying to convince him and herself, begging “We’re so happy, aren’t we? We’re going to be terribly, terribly happy.”
They might have been a little bit happy. But the Dowager Countess is right when she tells Edith “Don’t stop him, doing the only sensible thing he’s come up with in months.” And in her humiliation comes a kind of power. Edith may despair to her mother when she tells Cora, “Look at them, both with their husbands. Sybil pregnant. Mary probably pregnant. Oh, Mama.” But Cora is right when she promises her daughter “You are being tested. And do you know what they say, my darling? Being tested only makes you stronger.” Edith may still be in despair when she tells Anna that the only thing she wants anyone to bring her is “A different life.” But she provides her own answer when she tells Anna that she won’t stay in bed because “I’m a useful spinster, good at helping out. That is my role. And spinsters get up for breakfast.”
“Useful spinster” may not cary as much social capital in Edith’s world as Duchess of Grantham, the title Lady Mary will inherit, or even as mother, a role available to Sybil even if she’s cast off the position she had as a child to become Mrs. Branson. But it’s a much more liberated position, carrying with it the potential for a life that has much more potential for excitement in it than tearing around the country at high speed. I can’t wait to see Edith embrace it.