Dear friends and readers,
So what was it? What had this character done wrong to have unleashed at her such a level of spite, of raw humiliation that I’ve never seen equaled in kind before — and I’ve been watching mini-series for some 40 years? Before the whole community, people she must live with, a fever pitch of rejection. The question to ask is, Why is this character scapegoated so?
Jane Eyre’s horror when Rochester’s brother-in-law interrupts her wedding to Rochester to say there is an impediment, Rochester had a wife now living, pales before this. Nothing to it.
I’ve long been puzzled at the way Lady Edith Grantham is sneered at, mocked, by Downton Abbey audience members. Fellowes, again knowing writer that he is (remember he wrote Gosford Park, one of the most intelligent of the great house movies I’ve seen, to expose the hypocrisies of professed motives), has been feeding this maw for three seasons. For three seasons I’ve seen it emerge again and again. In little things: Elizabeth McGovern as Cora Lady Grantham is directed to roll her eyes when Edith speaks; Maggie Smith as the dowager and Michelle Dockery as Lady Mary Princess grimace knowingly. In the first Edith gave away that her sister, Mary, had been in bed with one of the show’s several lout-lords who died at the abbey; in the second Edith drawn to, fooled by a man masquerading as a hideous cripple. I thought perhaps Fellows had decided he’d whip-lashed Edith enough when in 3:1 he had Robert Bathurst as Strallan courageously break the taboo which allows mean tricks and expose one played on Allen Leech as Tom Branson by another lout-lord.
I mistook. I should have realized that the intrusive domineering demand that Edith not consider this man by the Dowager was an important sign. I’ve never liked Lady Bracknell (Wilde’s Importance of Being Earnest), a witty bully, upon whom (Edith Evans) Maggie Smith may intuitively have modeled herself. Amusing cynic yes, like one of the old women Anthony Trollope is ever defending. She has the crass nerve to get up and insist what is happening is right and thus disable Strallan further (he crumbled because he overheard her making fun of his prowess to the chaplain):
She’s one of many in the DA world who thinks she has intimate rights over other people subject to her authority (some behave as if many others have intimate rights over them). The dowager couldn’t stand Strallan so Edith is thrown away with him. So what is wrong with him? Aristocrat, monied, kind, perceptive, offering “quite enough happiness” for Edith to be going on with (Lord Grantham’s words).
This gives us our first hint: what is wrong? he’s said to be too old and he’s got a crippled arm, masks, masks for not saying for he’s not manly enough, not macho enough, weak.
He fails to perform masculinity adequately. There you have it. And Edith, why is she a butt? She fails to perform femininity adequately. Jim was telling me tonight that he reads a blog which argues that the real electric power of DA (for those who are addicted) is it’s camp, and tonight he read there the offhand comment that some ludicrous star, inexplicably wrong in her garments, was dressed in the Edith Grantham style. Not Lady Mary Grantham. Not Lady Sybil, now Mrs Bransom (Deborah Findley Brown). Though they all dress alike.
So this hint is not sufficiently explanatory. This is not the first time I’ve asked myself what fuels the need to ridicule this young woman?
As I have before I hunted in three very good books on women’s films I have: Tania Modleski’s mongraph Loving with a Vengeange; and edited collections of essays by Marcia Landy (Imitations of Life) and Christine Gledhill (Home is Where the Heart Is). This time I wouldn’t give up. In previous hints I’ve found Miss Sarah Obrien (Siobhan Finneran): the villainess, spiteful domineering old maid; in 3:1 and 3:2 I tried to ignore her reversion to this role but in 3:3 she is not only wearing the ugliest of thick-cloth witch-like dresses, her face made up to look like pancake, her hair terrible. She is all menace. Daisy (Sophie McShera) tells Moseley she wouldn’t want Miss Obrien to be angry at her. In this episode Miss Obrien was outwitted by Thomas (he has also returned to smirking bad gay guy, narrow envious gay man Rob James-Cellier) who foolishly thought he could make her lose her job by telling (the now trembling) Molseley (Kevin Doyle) she meant to leave and directly Molseley to offer a relative as new lady’s maid to Lady Grantham.
I found Anna — long suffering, self-sacrificing nurse type. Mrs Hughes (Phyllis Logan), everyone’s well-meaning mother.
Trawl, trawl, trawl and then I saw it. Tania Modleski had it: no heroine is allowed to admit openly she longs to marry.
Is not this Edith’s flaw? in the first episode she became a Lawrentian-style farm girl to allure a man (whose wife put a stop to that). She wanted to love the crippled man. And what does she say when lying in her bed afterwards: not that she has missed a dreamed-of precious life, but that both sisters are married, one is pregnant and probably the other is. We have enough to see she does like him, but that’s not the emphasis here.
She wore her heart on her sleeve. She was open. She is indiscreet. Worse: she is inept at manipulation. She breaks code & for that and her exposure of the game she cannot be forgiven. Loneliness is a laugh among Judith Butler-style performers. Did anyone in her family, anyone downstairs feel for her? Anna Smith Bates (Joanne Froggart), in some ways an alter ego; it’s no coincidence Anna is Edith’s shadow in the last we see of Edith in this episode:
Score high for Fellowes. I put it to my reader this scene will be remembered and imitated. It’ll be spoken of. You thought Downton Abbey was running out of dazzle, did you?
I had meant to show how each separate episode in a good mini-series will have its own structure and set of themes. I showed patterns in 3:2. Here, then we are looking at themes. As it’s a hidden dialogue (overheard) that defeats Strallan so this is an episode rife with hidden information and lies which have power to hurt, often enough known by people who do not realize their power. Thomas lies to Molseley and inconsistently Cora, Lady Grantham does not give Miss Obrien a chance to explain herself (“I am very hurt by your behavior”) while being all fairy-godmother goodness to Phyllis Logan as Mrs Hughes (“we will keep you” if you should become too ill to work). Daisy alone knows that Lavinia Swine (Zoe Boyle) sent a letter to her lawyer on the day she was dying and blurts it out, thus enabling Lady Mary to pressure Matthew to accept a legacy the family needs. Mrs Bartlett (Claire Higgins) may know the truth of Bates’s wife’s last hours. In the prison a friend warns Bates (Brendan Coyle) that a weapon has been planted in his bed and the police told; he is able to wrest it out of his bedding and hide it before the police rush in to search.
And so it goes. Lies, secrecy, silence — central themes in women’s books ever since Austen’s Sense and Sensibility.
Preposterous scenes of virtue — central to women’s romance since heroic 17th century romance and rife in opera. So Matthew cannot bear to accept his legacy and when persuaded to, Lord Grantham will not take the money but share the abbey with his son-in-law who admits he likes living there. Isobel Crawley (Penelope Wilton) teaching sleazy sarky prostitutes to use sewing machines while they jeer at her. Fellowes’s disdain and hostile depiction of the lowest vulnerable members of society is not compensated for by Ethel Parks’s shame when she comes in for help (naturally not for herself) and again flees rather than tell her secret.
What are men and women allowed to do is presented as a genuine question. Not reveal their appetite, as Anna tells Daisy that makes men flee:
Not take it upon yourself to criticize the arrangements of those above you Mr Carson tells Miss Obrien’s naive nephew, Alfred (Matt Milne).
Of course this is drivel as a serious investigation of how to live your life. It is really what you want that shapes your choices. Edith did want to marry Strallan and be mistress of his estate, have his children. Now she wants another life but cannot see her way to any other. Lady Mary wants to stay princess of Downton and Mr Carson her butler. Lord Grantham does not want to lose face or status. Matthew no longer seems to want the independence he once did, and Tom Bransom has begun to wear dinner jackets — they both appear to want to please their wives.
IN Downton Abbey we can measure the characters by what they want at this point. Miss Obrien wants to get back at Thomas for insulting her as someone who was never asked to be married (how does he know she ever wanted to?) and threatening her job.
As usual I warm most to Mrs Hughes who appears to want to live on, quietly, with dignity, as self-supporting as her world will let her be. I would warm to Isobel Crawley if (like Edith but for very different reasons) her work were not the subject of such ridicule.
What kind of life do you want to live is a serious debate found in Victorian novels. When Jane fled Rochester, she was forced “to build a life.” When Mrs Crawley is trying to reach Ethel, she wants also to be frank (like Edith is intuitively) and uses the word “prostitute” of how Ethel is surviving, and says “you should know this is true of every woman who has come here to rebuild their lives and I’m helping them, and is re-echoed mockingly:
That’s right. Why not come in and help us rebuild our lives?
I understand the sarcastic laughter. People act in terms of particulars, of their own landscape, and if they don’t have access to a milieu that allows for fulfillment on middle class terms, they don’t get it. So Ethel says, “That’s not why I’m here Mrs Crawley. That is I am … what you said but I don’t want help, not for myself but … ” and unable to face whatever it is, she runs off again. It’s not so bad with Edith as say Mrs Bartlett (a laundress) or these unskilled women or Ethel. Isobel says over dinner what Edith needs is something useful to do.
But it has been a viscerally searing day for her, and my goal in this blog has been to investigate why Edith is the episode scapegoat.