Dowager: ‘Now that it’s over try to get some rest …’
Cora: ‘Is it over? when one loses a child is it ever really over?’
Cora to Robert: ‘You’re always flabbergasted by the unconventional’
Cora at Robert: ‘Not everyone chooses their religion to satisfy Debret’s’
and then there was:
Lord Grantham: ‘We’re going right now …’
Cora: ‘What are you talking about …’ [emphasis hers]
Dear friends and readers,
I don’t say that Elizabeth McGovern in this episode came up to when I first saw her, as Beatrice-Joanna in Middleton’s Changeling (with Hugh Grant and Bob Hoskins), but, alas, you can only see that if you’ve a working VHS player and buy this cassette; the old PBS (Channel 13, Play of the Week) performance is not even listed on IMDB. Go look. Nor when I saw her in Shelley Duval’s Faery Tale Theater; (where I’ll swear she was in a tale with David Hemmings, and held her own as Snow White against an evil queen — though she’s not listed there either). The material in Downton Abbey is not up to Middleton at any rate; but then Maggie Smith has not shown us what she can do either.
But she was great and (as middle-aged women who demand to be taken seriously) again overlooked, and if half-crazed pathos was her end note last week, steely- or suppressed rage was at moments this. I wished she could have given some of it to Ethel who also had a child now dead to her and given her subaltern position can only manage: “But you know how it is when you bury someone young …When you lose your child there’s nothing worse under the sun.” By contrast, Cora says: “I am here [still].” (Not as good as “I am Duchess of Malfi still” but going in that direction.)
The major thread of this hour was coping with Sybil’s death: the fallout. In context, the usual suffering of Bates and Anna functions in place of the comic relief, but such little time is given over to it, that it’s hard to say just why Bates’s use of a pointed instrument (nail file?) and menacing threat of his cellmate’s throat, and the spiteful oppressive guard terrorized them into successfully urging Mrs Barnett to tell how Vera probably poisoned herself with a pie.
See I told you it was what we had as comic relief. Mary, ever the sage, while taking her jewels off her fingers, tells Anna standing by with hairbrush more than once “we need this, it’s good news.”
Though I fear not for Thomas who is also being set up for a rejection by Jimmy (who complains of Thomas’s gingerly gestures towards Jimmy’s shoulder).
One cannot say the other thread which contrasted to the major story was comic, as it partly reinforced the realities Lord Grantham is having to face. When Daisy (Sophie McShera) visits her loving father-in-law, he tells her he would like her to learn to take over his farm, to become its manager.
Daisy: But I always thought I’d spend my life in service
Mr Mason (Paul Copley) ‘You have forty years of work ahead of ya do you think these great houses like Downton Abbey are going to go on just as they are for 40 years, because I don’t …
Lord Grantham is not going to lose just the battle over whether his new grandchild will be Catholic Mary: “You’re going to lose this one.”
We saw Daisy trying to teach an ungrateful Alfred (Matt Milne) to foxtrot
But he hankers after Ivy (actress’s name?), of whose rouge Mrs Patmore (Leslie Nicol) does not approve, mostly because she’s been irritated out of all patience by the obdurate cruelty of Mr Carson (Jim Carter) against Ethel. Mr Carson scolds her and she is not allowed to answer back. Nor does Mrs Hughes. In fact no one (not even Cora) tells any of the men they have no right to judge Ethel’s life — not when they are men (with all the gender’s advantages).
In Fellowes’s world, the women can identify and sympathize with Ethel, most of the men (Dan Stevens I assume would take on his role as noble exception) scorn.
Otherwise, we are coping with something impossible to cope with. The death of a young woman. Mrs Crawley in her usual anxiety to help (“Is there something I can do, anything, anything at all?”)
Well, no, now that you mention it.
But she persists, and Mary supports her in the invitation to luncheon for “the girls” (“Does that include me,” asks the Dowager unseen on the couch), which leads to what I think is Mrs Crawley’s first ungenerous moment in 3 years: when Ethel voices her intense desire to do something too — in the form of a delicious luncheon: “I’d like to make a bit of an effort to show our sympathies,” Mrs Crawley in effect threatens her with loss of job: “I’ll hold you responsible.”
For those paying attention to the art and structure of these parts, the luncheon occurs at precisely the same place as the humiliation at the wedding. When Cora refuses to leave, defying Robert and supporting Ethel, that was climax. Maybe that’s why most blogs sees to quote the Dowager’s unusually semi-feeble (all the funnier) support of Cora by way of apology to her son: “It seems a pity to miss such a good pudding.”
I’ll give Lord Grantham this: although he’d see Ethel starve, he’s not into marital rape (Cora has relegated him to his dressing room), and so the Dowager engineers a scene of catharsis, to bring Cora back to face what she cannot:
The core of the final scene is that it was probably in the cards for Sybil to die. Eclampsia is still a major cause of “complications” (as things going fatally wrong are euphemistically called), and in 1920 although there had been sufficient advances in understanding sepsis as well as how to stem the horrific bleeding that comes with the major surgery of Cesarean section (through increased knowledge of the flesh walls of the uterus), still it was a highly risky procedure.
I take Cora’s shudder and hysterical crying as the final scene shuts after Clarkson’s shading of the truth (we could also call it) to be this realization because I want to be charitable to Downton Abbey. I know there is another interpretation: we are encouraged to believe that under pressure from the Dowager, Dr Clarkson lied.
As we all recall, in the previous episode, Dr Clarkson said there was “a chance” Lady Sybil could survive if she was rushed to the hospital for a Cesarean. And we recall that Dr Tapsell pooh-poohed this, and said he saw nothing to demand such strong measures and Lord Grantham went with Dr Tapsell and Cora acquiesced. (Some commentators have said this complicity of hers was the result of instilled obedience to her husband, and we might say her rage at her husband is rage at herself but I think that’s giving psychological depth to these characters that’s not there (It’s not a George Eliot novel but more like a staged play.) The Dowager persuades Dr Clarkson to move from “small chance” to an “infinitesimal chance.” And in the event, facing the pair, he actually says she would have died anyway. Upon which Cora collapses into Lord Grantham’s arms.
Why? was it that she really blamed her husband and now that she believes it was not his fault, she is not angry. That turns her into a mechanical doll, a stupid woman whose emotions can be turned through words. I take it (as I say) she finally faced that Lady Sybil was going to die and there was nothing to be done.
But there is a problem here ethically: Fellowes encourages us to feel that she was led to this realization by a lie. The moment may be seen as a not simply a justification of lying as sometimes needed, called for, but even a kind of validation. The hour at that point recalled Ann Patchett’s Patron St of Liars, which novel rather boomerangs on her as a thoroughly disingenuous novelist. It also validates a doctor imposing a false truth on a woman.
As it happens last night I watched another movie, this one based on an under-rated fine novel, The Walking Stick, where the heroine finds her sense of reality so undermined by the lying of her partner, that to keep her sanity and trust, and stability she has to give up the relationship. We can only base ourselves on the stability of truth. This is of course not the only time I’ve seen Fellowes urge a distorted coarse understanding of life’s experiences, but it did grate, possibly because I took the character Cora too seriously. I have known several women now whose children pre-deceased them. One of them told me it’s like having a knife put in your heart ever after.
But if you don’t take this mini-series or its character seriously (and it’s not great art and Fellowes’s vision is often falsifying), you are invited to find it amusing that Ethel had to plead with Mrs Patmore to get Mrs Patmore to help her and accept such dismissively wry statement when Ethel finds herself remembering how often she has failed as a cook, that “Anyone who has the use of their limbs can make a salmon mousse:”
Can they now? I can’t.
Mrs Patmore, like Mrs Hughes, quietly defies Mr Carson (patriarchy is having a hard time in this episode) and the two help Ethel, but they do not do so graciously, bringing to mind the Latin saying: “To give quickly is to give twice.” Mrs Hughes has ever been grudging, and now Patmore has to be argued into helping Ethel on the grounds her Ladyship will be there:
That’s not good enough. The first scene between Ethel and Mrs Patmore was for me the most painful because (as I said when I started) Cora stands up for herself. I wish she had held out longer against Lord Grantham, but it was inevitable that she let things go back to whatever they were and live with Sybil’s death.
There was a rare touching scene between Matthew and Mary in bed together. It too related to Sybil’s death, but for those who watch the mini-series as a mini-series, you know this is ominous foreshadowing:
He: When Sybil was talking about the baby being a Catholic do you get the sense that she knew?
She: I’m not sure, not at the time but of course I’ve asked myself since.
He: You’d think we’d be used to young death after four years of war.
She: That’s why we must never take anything for granted.
He: That’s what I’m trying to get Robert to see. He wasn’t given Downton by God’s decree. We have to work if we want to keep it.
She: And not only Downton, us. We must never take us for granted. Who knows what’s coming.
He: I have to take one thing for granted. That I will love you until the last breath leaves my body.
She: Oh my darling, me too. Me too,
She lays on him and he kisses her hair
To sum up: It’s about the fallout after a hard death and Elizabeth McGovern comes into her own in this role. I wished Amy Nuttal had been able (but her position precluded it so we must make do with Cora) to react as frankly and truly. I like that it may be in the cards Sophie McShera may yet end up in charge.
The important history in these two episodes is the way women are treated in childbirth as a mirror of the way they are still sidelined today.