Two Christmases ago, the PBS Signals catalog (I highly recommend it for gifts both cultural and convenient) had three Downton Abbey-inspired tee shirts for sale. “I’m a Mary,” proclaimed one. “I’m a Sybil,” read another. And the last, of course, was “I’m an Edith.” I remember thinking “Well, that will be on clearance soon enough.”
Who would want to be an Edith?
First impressions first. From the very start of Downton’s initial season three years ago, the dowdy Edith has been overshadowed by her elegant, elder sister Mary. Compared to Lady Mary’s stone cold beauty and manner, Edith seems awkward and naive. Meanwhile, she lacks the lovely vivaciousness of the younger Crawley sister Sybil. Doomed to spinsterhood long before her expiration date, it’s as though Edith was born middle-aged.
“Poor Edith,” is all the gentle viewer can think.
In fairness, I should offer a quick aside here. Laura Carmichael, the 28-year old actress who plays Edith, is actually quite pretty. It’s always a shock to see the inhabitants of Downton — upstairs or down — in contemporary clothing. In the case of Edith/Laura, it is a lovely surprise.
But, back to the manor. . . Lady Edith, to date, has been unlucky in love, to say the least. She sets her cap at cousin Matthew early on, but, alas, he already has eyes for Mary. Next, she helps a local farmer and steals a few forbidden kisses, until the man’s wife insists that her. . . um. . . assistance is no longer needed. She falls (hook, line and sinker) for a disfigured veteran claiming to be the Crawleys’ long-lost cousin and heir. And, in what is surely the saddest story, she finally becomes engaged to a man that everyone thinks is too old for her “She’ll be a nurse, and by the time she’s 50 she’ll be wheeling around a one-armed old man,” rages her father. The groom, convinced that he’s not right for her, finds a most inconvenient time to call things off: at the altar.
“Poor Edith,” indeed.
With all this bad luck, wouldn’t it be nice if Edith could find comfort in the bosom of her family? But no, they seem united in their utter dismissal of her. On Mary’s long-awaited wedding day, Edith makes a half-hearted crack about how fortunate the match is. “Don’t pay any attention to Edith,” Lady Grantham, the girls’ mother, tells the bride. Her offhanded tone implies that no one should bother to do so. . . ever.
After Edith is jilted, she does find her mother more sympathetic:
Cora: You are being tested. And you know what they say my darling. Being tested only makes you stronger.
Edith: I don’t think it’s working with me.
And, of course, the staff is always willing to help:
Anna: What would you like me to get you?
Edith: A different life.
Wanting an action plan, she goes to her Granny for advice. As expected, the Countess sternly upbraids the girl for her self-pity. “Edith dear. You’re a woman with a brain and reasonable ability. Stop whining and find something to do!” That episode, toward the end of last season, marked a turning point for Edith. She does do something.
At the table one morning (unmarried women being dissuaded from breakfasting in bed), Edith disagrees with her father’s assertions about women’s rights.
Edith: I don’t have the vote. I’m not over thirty and I’m not a householder. It’s ridiculous.
Matthew: You should write to The Times.
Edith: Maybe I will.
To her father’s dismay (and her two brothers-in-law’s delight), her letter is published and she’s offered a regular writing job. But this doesn’t end the put-downs. In fact, the Dowager Countess meets this news with her usual disdain.
Matthew: Edith has had an opportunity to write a newspaper column.
Violet: When may she expect an offer to appear on the London stage?
Quips aside (and quips are, of course, one of the greatest delights Downton Abbey offers), Edith finally has a chance to succeed on her own terms rather than being compared (less than favorably) to her sisters. Change is in the air, at last.
A persistent theme in Downton Abbey is change; life on England’s great estates was forever altered after World War I. The Earl and his mother (and even his butler) bemoan the new casualness, while Sybil and her chauffeur husband look forward to real and lasting reform. Lady Mary will succeed at whatever the new world serves up. But, Lady Edith, a single woman with no particular desire to garden, is in the position of reaping the real benefits of the burgeoning women’s rights movement.
Suddenly there are avenues open to an upper class girl “with reasonable ability.” She can work outside the home. She can take the train into London. She can fall in love with her married editor and trust that he will get a divorce — and she will get her happy ending. Edith will become the new woman, not because of any great sense of social justice, but because she has to.
Here’s where the tale of the sisters becomes more historically significant and not just a well-dressed (albeit wonderful) soap opera. Mary, who seems to have come from the finishing school of Machiavelli, doesn’t yearn for rights or for freedoms. She is very comfortable running the show (and we have no doubt that she will do so) from a more traditional place. She has beauty and fortune and was lucky (or smart) enough to fall in love with her father’s heir. Sybil, who was the family’s idealistic rebel, has broken convention by marrying the chauffeur. But, once married, she was content to be “Mrs. Branson” until her untimely death in childbirth.
Edith, on the other hand, has to find power (or contentment) on her own. How lucky she is that the war is over and it’s the roaring twenties. (And, how much better she looks in a flapper dress and short hair.)
This brings us to season four, which will premiere on Sunday, January 5th here in the States (not that any of us are counting down). Will Edith embrace her new role as a career woman? Will she become politically active? Will she marry her editor despite the raised eyebrows she’ll attract? Or, even more shocking, will she dare “shacking up” without the benefit of marriage? I’ve a sense that Edith feels the old system let her down. Why should she adhere to it anymore? I think the girl is tired of playing the victim. And, finding her voice as a writer may be key to finding out who she is and what she really wants.
“Poor Edith?” This year, I have a feeling Edith will be the Crawley daughter to watch.