Sir Philip Tapsell (Tim Piggot-Smith): Never fear, Duchess, I’ll get a baby out of her one way or the other
Ethel: But I think it’s going to be a lot more complicated than you allow. Mrs Crawley: Then we shall have to face those complications together, shan’t we?
Dear friends and readers,
People keep asking me why are so many people watching and talking about Downton Abbey? Well, by this time (the third season) it’s become what Truffaut called “a sociological event.” Many don’t want to feel left out as others passionately discuss what they wouldn’t have seen; so they watch.
Of course this just avoids the question, what hooked viewers originally? I’ve been showing precisely because DA exploits the features of the soap opera form, one peculiarly fitted to TV watching. Like the clocks Mr Barrow teaches Jim are living things: “Never wind them in the early morning before a room is warmed up nor too late when the night air cools them down.” And I’ve tried to show Fellowes uncanny intuition for dramatizing paradigms of intensely sore areas — like when in the 1st episode of this season a mean bully-trick is exposed. Many suffering from bullying and underhanded tricks today know in fact such behavior is tolerated, still treated as a joke.
This power of this week’s episode derives from the way historical novels and films present usable pasts (or create them) in order to speak to us today. It is no coincidence that another female died in childbirth in a paradigm just like Lady Sybil’s in a mini-series that has sold more copies than any other (until perhaps Downton Abbey) but the 1995 A&E/WBGH/BBC Pride and Prejudice (scripted Andrew Davies, with Colin Firth as Darcy): the 1970s 2nd mini-series of Poldark ends in the death of Elizabeth Chynoweth Poldark Warleggan in childbirth. We see Elizabeth (Jill Townsend) during parturition suffering badly:
Like Sybil, Elizabeth gives birth and everyone rejoices, and then a few hours later we hear her screams. We’ve gone on from 1977: we hear but do not see Elizabeth die in an agony. But it is the same sudden turn about. In the earlier case (by which I mean 1977-78) the woman does not die from eclampsia but from having taken a dangerous herb-drug to induce early parturition (see court cases), and whatever Dr Enys did probably would have been as useless as the doctors in this week’s Downton Abbey (2013). (More on Elizabeth’s story.) Neo-Victorian novels are said to be feminist and it would be interesting to compare how many deaths in childbirth are directly dramatized in these novels and the specific treatment, and how these are treated in mini-series on TV but this would take research and is beyond the purview of my weekly recaps).
The point is the scenes of intense anxiety with which the episode opens, the later terrors and pains, the intense fear, the sudden relief, the turn around, and then the sudden death are about what women experience today. And also the moving half-crazed reactions of several of the characters to childbirth, here to a death. Elizabeth McGovern came into her own again (she has not had such a meaty series of scenes since she almost died of flu in Season 2) when we come upon her talking to the corpse of her daughter — with no preparations that this is what we are seeing.
For once the Dowager Duchess is not funny. Maggie Smith uses her aging body in a long walk across the hall to emphasize the feeling of gross injustice at the death of the young woman.
We then see her earnestly talking about how it was nobody’s fault. For once Lord Grantham does take part of the blame, which concession may be seen as ironic from a distance as obviously he did not cause her eclampsia, though it is true at the opening of the episode he becomes irritated when Dr Clarkson tries to tell the family about the details of symptoms that are worrying him. But then is not Cora as much to blame when she tells Clarkson he is giving too much information and all they need to know is can they go back to bed?
One aspect of childbirth today that seems to bother women that this week’s episode made visible is how men as physicians are often in charge. Blog after blog, comments, postings all “interpreted” the death of Sybil as the result of men in charge. In the particular instance the fatuous Tapsell was wrong, and Dr Clarkson was not able to get Lord Grantham to follow his advice and take Sybil to the hospital and try to induce labor early (a bit of anachronism there), but we could put that down to class bias. Cora, Lady Grantham (Elizabeth McGovern) blames Lord Grantham, but she is complicit, does not herself act on her impulse to ask Tom (someone calls him the “chaffeur” still), who doesn’t know what to do. And it’s by no means clear that had they gone to the hospital the outcome would have been better. It is though true that the last quarter century women have been trying to free themselves of male control, instinctively sensing the male is not sufficiently on their side as women but rather supporting the medical establishment.
For my part, while watching this week’s episode I kept remembering how during the very first time I was pregnant my husband and I had this little plan we got from the sessions on childbirth we attended together. We were going to have this book of short poems with us and he read them as we followed all our instructions on distraction. What laugh when it began to happen. Totally unreal. Or just before I went in when my grandmother suddenly turned round to me and said, oh so seriously to me, “Good Luck.” I would need was the dire feel. Looking back from another childbirth more than 6 years after the first my grandmother was the only person who produced an appropriate tone, who had not been cut off from the reality of history as well as experience. (Full disclosure: I’ve had two live births, both C-sections; before that, two miscarriages, one of which ended in an abortion to save my life.)
In Anibundel’s blog on DA this week, she links in Ta Nehisi-Coates’s great shock when he discovered childbirth is still dangerous, and a general column validating the insight that science is not magic: nature is still there and evolution has made childbirth risky for mother and baby. Atul Gawande has tried to remind women what childbirth is and was not just before the 20th century technological breakthroughs but recently.
Most after the first experience even when everything does not go badly and ends well (live healthy mother and baby) know the truth. Labor is not discomfort, it’s pain, bad pain, and the experience physically traumatic. Why is this not discussed? the same reason that the details of childbirth were not discussed in earlier times, were taboo in the Victorian novel. It seems all cultures do what they can to erase the hardship of having babies in order to pressure women into becoming mothers. I queried Victoria (a list-serv about Victorian books) two days ago for citations of scenes where we have a direct dramatization of death or agonies in childbirth. Very uncommon. We are presented with orphans, the experience of a woman is reported, but a direct scene? and when it is detailed the reviewers protested. See my list of typical childbirth deaths in Victorian to Edwardian novels.
Cora’s failure of nerve: Clarkson is speaking firmly against Tapsell and Lord Grantham (who have objected to “public” hospitals) but we see in Cora’s face a fatal hesitation (tellingly it’s Edith who stands behind her mother in such scenes)
To some watchers it may seem remarkable that this is not the only thread in this week’s multi-plot pattern. Put it down to the ability of Fellowes to convey meaning through epitomizing dialogues and gestures and the sophistication of viewers who have seen this sort of thing before. The thread with the most scenes is that of Isobel Crawley’s attempt to hire of Ethel Parks as a servant to enable her to climb out of the pariah status she is now in even though Ethel finds she need no longer be a prostitute to make ends meet. (No boy to clothe, feed, send to school.) Ethel is deeply grateful but warns Mrs Crawley that there will be complications (the use of the word links this substory with that of Lady Sybil).
I for one was not surprised to see Mrs Bird refuse to work with Ethel. My favorite moment in this week’s episode was where the narrow Mrs Bird thinking that if she says she’ll leave, Mrs Crawley will not hire Ethel, tells Mrs Crawley she’s going and Mrs Crawley thanks her and wishes her well.
Normally I loathe scenes which show the power of the employer; not this time. This being Fellowes he gives the sarky conservative who disdains good acts ammunition by making Ethel a bad cook, awkward, stumbling. But Mrs Crawley is not ridiculed for once. (Several unusual moments this week.) My hope (looking ahead) is that when Mrs Crawley loses her son (hush hush I know) she may find her reward for her beautiful act was to find she has this loving giving person with her as a substitute.
Daisy too is made to realize she is not as powerful as she dreamed she would be by her promotion. We see her struck by the powerful Lady Sybil’s death. Later she realizes too she is making herself disliked by Alfred by bullying the new scullery maid, Ivy, who shows competence. One might say realization is the theme of this episode. Thomas surprises himself by grieving over Lady Sybil’s death. He realizes how much she meant to him as a caring employer. We have, done with remarkable celerity, Anna and John Bates realizing how Bates’s ex-wife poisoned herself and framed him for murder, Anna’s meeting with Lord Grantham and then the lawyer (both of which are literally skipped — we are to understand what was said).
There are also realizations to come. Matthew has realized that Lord Grantham is badly mismanaging Downton Abbey but when he twice in this episode tries to do something about it, he is thwarted by Lady Mary. The first time it’s in a mild talk they have as they pass a ruined barn but the second she comes near to putting him “in his place” when he attempts to tell the lawyer (who himself knows something needs to be don). How dare Matthew try to talk to her father when he is so grieved? We are getting hints that all is not well in their sex life (that’s why no pregnancy has emerged). Miss Obrien is (alas) shown as up to her usual spite as she encourages Jimmy to turn to Thomas for help, and Jimmy begins to realize that because Thomas is homosexual (however closeted) this may cause difficulties for him (who is apparently not bisexual at all).
But all these feel like very much tertiary threads in the tapestry of this week’s central drama. There is perhaps too much idealization of Sybil now she’s dead: Mrs Patmore: “She was the kindest person in the house.” But rather than cavil I’d like to close where I opened: the soap opera nature of these programs and another way of looking at Sybil Bransom’s death.
It was reported at the end of the 1st season that Jessica Brown Findlay and Dan Stevens had said they did not want to return for a second season. That could be interpreted as wanting more money. Then between the 2nd and 3rd the same two were said to want out. This past fall it was said Maggie Smith would not do a fourth year, but now she has agreed to. Her departure would have been such a great loss to the series as almost to deal it a death-blow.
It can kill a show to lose a favored actor or actress. They are part of the mix that attracts, part of the dream life of the viewer’s on-going time the form caters to. Let’s say were Downton Abbey a day-time program, and the producers were confronted with the problem of an actor who wants out, would they kill her off? I suggest perhaps not. The structuring of soap operas is based on the idea of an ongoing community of characters only some of whom we see in an particular episodes or series of episodes. Characters drift in and out, disappear, reappear, leave legacies. It’s the large community that we see, and someone can vanish and then at a later time return. They can be brought back. This is very much the way of cyclical series of novels: Trollope has vanishing and recurring characters; so too Oliphant, Balzac, in our own time Anthony Powell. It would be easy for Fellowes to bring Sir Richard Carlisle back if the original actor or an actor who looked sufficiently like him were willing. We have a new footman, a new scullery maid. Mrs Bird is going to vanish at least for a while after this episode.
But DA is not quite ongoing in the same way as daytime TV. It’s not daily, and it doesn’t go on all year. We have only so many parts, so we really do concentrate on about 14 or so characters, with some central stars. Of course they could have written it that Sybil went off to Ireland with Tom and that’s that. Fellowes wants a family that sticks together (part of his piety). Findlay Brown’s determination to find another role and not be typecast enabled him to see his way to strong scenes by using her departure this way.
We have been similarly told that Dan Stevens is leaving after this year. He had been acting in the US on Broadway (among other roles). The character has certainly been made to feel useless for the last two episodes or so. He alone encourages Sybil in her budding career as a journalist but except for her (and she doesn’t count for much in the family prestige) if he brings forth any of his modern or progressive ideas (like his mother’s), they are not much appreciated.
Another epitomizing scene in this episode was between Mary and Sybil (as sisters they were close). Sybil asked Mary to help her stop Tom from taking a job a a lower rank and told her that she intended to make the baby Catholic to please Tom. Mary’s reply: “you don’t have to.” Now that Sybil is dead, the way is open for the family (we know of Lord Grantham’s bigotry towards Catholics) to protest this baptism (on all sorts of grounds including future career). If a struggle ensues over the baby’s religion, and Matthew sticks up for Tom’s rights as he has before), do you think that will count for much?
Again I have been discussing how soap opera works in order to defend the form.
P.S. For fun and semiotics: the Hats of Downton Abbey, Season 3
The hats a character wears tell a lot about her. This year the costume designer had a smaller costumer budget.