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Downton Abbey: A Journey of Womanhood

By Srirupa Dhar

It was a happy coincidence that the final episode of Downton Abbey, the iconic British television drama, was aired in the U.S. just before Women’s Day this year. After all, Downton Abbey celebrates womanhood in myriad ways. While historic wars and scientific changes lurk behind the portrayal of a grand aristocratic life style, this television series enunciates the inevitability of social change in the early 1900s. This change promises a better and congenial world for the lower strata of British society. For the earls and dukes, however, the change foreshadows sad ironies and unforgiving losses of property, title and social importance. Though the change broadly hits the two societal classes in different ways, it affects women of all classes in some similar fashions. Women are no longer relegated to the household. Both rich and poor women, to the shock of many upper class conservatives, are starting to go out into the world and deciding their own futures. Neither is marriage the only career for ladies belonging to the nobility, nor is drudgery the sole option for young working class women. The housemaid Gwen becomes a secretary, the kitchen maid Daisy shows signs of rising above her class through education and the earl’s daughter, Lady Mary, finally runs the family estate. The script writer Julian Fellowes deftly handles this odyssey of women in the early twentieth century. He also pays homage to motherhood: the most instinctive urges of women of all generations.  The moral vision of Downton Abbey looks forward to the new world without denying nature. The journey of Lady Edith Crawley through the entire dramatic series most powerfully epitomizes this vision.  Lady Sybil, the youngest of the Crawley sisters, began this voyage.

Sybil is a modern woman right at the outset of the drama. The idea of social change among the aristocracy is ushered in through Sybil’s character who boldly flaunts an outlandish dress, unconditionally helps Gwen to get a job as a secretary, and actively engages herself as a nurse during the First World War. Above all, Sybil defies conservative societal norms when she marries the man of her choice: Tom Branson, the chauffeur of Downton. This marriage signifies more than flouting rigid traditions. It is an intrepid move to bring together the highly stratified society in those days. Through her individualist gesture, Sybil enriches the narrative of Downton Abbey. She shows that women can take control of their lives and not have to depend on a male relation. Later on in the series, Tom proudly tells Mary that he and Sybil were equal partners in marriage. Neither social class, nor gender differences could ever mar their connection, love or marriage. Sybil dies in childbirth in the third season of the series, but her legacy lives on through  Tom who never forgets their fulfilling love.

Besides the legacy of all conquering love, Sybil leaves behind other legacies that attain full meaning through her sister, Edith. Viewers would least expect Edith to make Sybil’s vision of the emancipated woman become real. In the beginning of the series, Edith, the second of the three daughters of the Earl of Grantham, seems to be fated to spend her life as a spinster without having anything to do or even own for herself. Her elder sister, Mary, will by default (as long as she marries the rightful male heir) become the next Lady Grantham and the mistress of Downton. Through her marriage to the next male heir to Downton, Mary is privileged to inherit the estate that will pass on to her son in the future. All that the audience sees in the initial episodes is Edith’s acute sibling rivalry with Mary and her stark acceptance of humiliation. This humiliation takes many forms. She was in love with Patrick, the male heir to Downton, who dies in the Titanic tragedy. Edith would not have been able to get married to Patrick because Mary, being the eldest daughter, would have to marry him even though it meant going against her own will. After Patrick’s death came Matthew, the next male heir who was also a potential husband for Mary and not for Edith. In the first season of this television series Edith is desperate to make Matthew fall in love with her but sadly, Matthew thought that she was “barking up the wrong tree.” Edith’s further attempt to settle into a happy marriage also fails when the elderly Sir Anthony jilts her at the altar. Watching Edith’s endeavors to make something of her life foiled each time, the viewers, just like Lord and Lady Grantham, wonder whether her life is headed for a colorless spinsterhood. As parents, Lord and Lady Grantham could not envision any other option for a woman but to get married. Little did they know that Edith would etch a future for herself through the power of her pen and happier things were to follow. Edith was, after all, not predestined to a lonely, gray life because she was beginning to carve a life for herself outside the walls of Downton. She was almost invalidating ideas of fatalism for she would not let herself become a helpless victim of circumstance. And in doing so, Edith celebrates the legacy of Sybil.

Edith’s story undergoes several dramatic turns before she rises above her dark experiences. The worst blow comes when Michael Gregson, the man with whom she enjoys mutual and true love, dies at the hands of some thugs in the politically tumultuous Germany of the 1920s. At this point of Downton Abbey, the audience is almost seduced into believing that Edith is not meant for happiness, let alone have the ability to assert control over her life. Edith gives birth to her illegitimate daughter which only complicates her already unpromising story. But at this nadir of her happiness, when everything seems to go against her, Edith discovers in herself the energies of the most elemental of human passions: the energies galvanizing a mother. The woman within her revolts against all social fears of being stigmatized as an unmarried mother (which, in those days, could mean exposing herself to utter shame). She defies all conventions and decides to first keep Marigold, her daughter, with the Drews and then bring her to Downton as the family’s ward. Edith’s visceral nature of motherhood enhances the rhetoric of the drama. It portrays the undeniable instinct of all women, whether old or most contemporaneous.

The drama brilliantly presents yet another aspect of Edith’s womanhood. Edith inherits both Michael Gregson’s apartment and office and becomes the modern working woman. As a woman she encounters truculent behavior from Mr. Skinner, her male employee, but she quickly decides not to tolerate his chauvinistic ego and fires him. Edith confidently and successfully runs her magazine with only women staff. This is an enormous transformation from the jealous, idle Edith of the first season. She can now claim ownership of her life. She has moved far beyond the precincts of an aristocratic mansion. Edith now owns the apartment once graced by luminaries like Virginia Woolf and other contemporary literati. This change in Edith’s life is a major shift both literally and symbolically. She is the quintessential modern woman who has created a “room of one’s own”. Mary too is a working woman but she works within the confines of her familial estate. Edith is the ultimate paragon of modernity because she is not shackled to a social system that will soon vanish into oblivion. There is a metonymic transformation of space from the countryside Downton to urban London and the dynamics of Edith’s life changes totally. Even Lord Grantham who suffers inwardly to see the world change, expresses his pride in Edith whom he describes as the “modern” woman.

Edith’s voyage is a dramatic trajectory consummating in a joyful love relationship. She finds true love in Bertie only to lose him temporarily for honestly acknowledging her motherhood to Marigold. Edith’s conscience is tormented until Bertie knows the truth about her past (ingloriously proclaimed by Mary), and she does not want to end up in a dishonest union. She even confesses the truth about herself to Bertie’s mother and it is Edith’s impeccable moral courage that wins the old lady’s heart.

Edith decides her future by asserting her identity as an independent woman and mother. She is determined to never lose Marigold even if that means thwarting the last bit of happiness life has to offer her. In the end, both her moral rectitude and maternal love triumph and she gets married to a genuine man like Bertie. Her journey coalesces the self-dependence of modernity with the moral responsibility of a wife and mother. Edith shows us the true woman within.

Acknowledgment of Source: The phrase “room of one’s own” in line 10 of paragraph 5 is reminiscent of the title of Virginia Woolf’s feminist essay: A Room of One’s Own.

Srirupa Dhar
is Indian by birth and has been living in the United States since 1998. She completed her M.A. and M.Phil. in English Literature at the University of Kolkata, India. She obtained another Master’s degree in English with Technical Writing Certification from the University of Alabama in Huntsville, U.S.A. Srirupa taught as a Lecturer in the Department of English at Bethune College, Kolkata. She has also been a Middle School English teacher in Columbus, Ohio. She is a voracious reader and takes an avid delight in all genres of art. Occasionally, she acts in plays in Columbus, where she is part of an amateur dramatic society.

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