Monday, January 28, 2013

we've come a long way, baby — from downton abbey

For everyone who tunes in to Downton Abbey for the fabulous period costumes and Upstairs, Downstairs-ish soap opera, those features were again in abundance, but this past Sunday's episode also turned up a twist — please don't read on if you haven't seen it yet and don't want a major spoiler.

Downton Abbey continues to faithfully serve up a glimpse of life among the rich and not-so-rich in (now in its third season) 1920s England. But what the show also offers is a look at how far we, especially women, have come since just the last century. Last night's episode underlined how difficult, whether you are the server or the served, life could be for women.

Edith's prospects are ignored by her father over breakfast

Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael), after her well-received letter to the editor, had been offered a position to write a column for the local paper. Brother-in-law Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens) was supportive, but her father, Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville), and grandmother, the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith), were predictably against it. I suspect Edith with go ahead with it, but the fact that her father still thinks he can forbid her taking the position shows how difficult life was for Edith. It's absurd to us today that Edith's father thinks that her expressing her opinion in print will embarrass him, that the world will make fun of her, and that he can prevent all of that from happening.

Matthew's mother, Isobel Crawley (Penelope Wilton), offers fallen woman and former Downton maid Ethel (Amy Nuttall) a job. Her cook and housekeeper Mrs. Bird (Christine Lohr) protests, and is let go. Not the outcome she expected, but Mrs. Crawley is not one to be trifled with. Mrs. Bird quickly fires off a letter to Mr. Molesley (Kevin Doyle) at Downton, to  express her outrage, and he wastes no time running to Mr. Carson (Jim Carter), who agrees that Ethel will make it impossible for any "decent woman" to ever set foot in Mrs. Crawley's house again. He urges her immediate dismissal but Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan) persuades him to let it be, at least for now. How hard it was then for a young woman, especially of a certain class, who had sex out of wedlock which resulted in a baby. She had few or no options. Ethel became, like many, a prostitute. And now, when she is trying to change her life, is still being treated like the scum of the earth, even when she would never prostitute herself again. It's hard for many contemporary women to understand, let alone relate to Ethel, or the attitudes she inspires. It's important that Downton Abbey reminds us how very different the rules for sexual behavior were for men and women not so long ago. It's also interesting that, apart from Mrs. Bird, two women, Mrs. Crawley and Mrs. Hughes, are far more sympathetic to Ethel's plight than men like Mr. Carson and Mr. Molesley.

Baby girl Branson

In the episode's most touching moments, Lady Sybil (Jessica Brown Findlay) went into labor, but all was not well. Her father brought in the aristocratic doctor Sir Philip Tapsell (Tim Piggott-Smith) to attend the birth, implying it was beyond local Dr. Clarkson (David Robb), who so ably eased Mrs. Hughes through her cancer scare last week. His wife Cora (Elizabeth McGovern), Lady Grantham, objected, as Dr. Clarkson "knows them" and insisted that he also be on hand. Her husband agreed, but it was soon clear that she, like many other women before and since, was merely being humored, as he and especially Tapsell, had no intention of letting Clarkson in on things. Everything came to a head when Clarkson diagnosed Sybil with eclampsia, and urged them to get her to a hospital to perform a Caesarian. Tapsell and Lord Grantham refused, and Sybil's screams ended the argument. She delivered a baby girl (the X chromosome is strong in the Crawley family) but a few hours later began having seizures and died, with her horrified, grief-stricken family and both doctors looking on helplessly. Women still die in childbirth today, but it is beyond tragic that Sybil's death may have been avoided, if only Cora and Clarkson, and Sybil herself, who had been complaining of headaches, swollen ankles, and hallucinating, had been taken seriously earlier. How far we have come in trying to offer safe and clean options for birth, and practically minute-by-minute monitoring of mother and baby-to-be in our modern world.

Lord Grantham, who we have learned has no nose for investments, and Matthew has discovered has not exactly been running Downton to a profit, was even more of a pompous ass than usual last night. Not only was he pig-headed and insensitive (as always) in his treatment of middle daughter Edith's opportunity, but he let his outmoded ideas of class and privilege affect a life and death decision about his youngest daughter. It is clear that his actions, or rather, inaction, has severely affected his marriage. Cora has kicked him out of their shared bedroom, and it doesn't look like he will regain entry anytime soon. The death of a child is difficult enough for a parent to take, but if Cora believes that it could have been prevented — and Lord Grantham has admitted to his mother that he agrees with her that it could have — the Crawleys will not be able to forgive themselves for Sybil's death for some time to come, if ever.

Will Cora and Robert be able to forgive themselves?

The Crawleys are being dragged into the 20th century, step-by-step, whether they want to be or not. Cora, Matthew and his mother, and Edith seem poised and eager to embrace more modern ways, while Lord Grantham, Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) and the Dowager Countess are trying desperately to hold onto a past that can no longer exist. They will all have to mourn Sybil, as the usually distant Thomas (Rob James-Collier) did in a touching moment, and eventually move on. There is a young baby to take care of, and what of "the chauffeur," Sybil's widower, Branson (Allen Leech)? Downton Abbey continues to entertainingly layer on the suds, while keeping us thinking about life then, and now.
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