Downton Abbey – How Far Women Have Come in the Last 100 Years
(and other matters)
Last week I saw a rant about season four of Downton Abbey. The author was disappointed in the story arcs, finding them not very exciting or shocking. My first reaction was “Are you kidding? Do you not comprehend the meaning of what you’re seeing on the screen?” I filled the Comment box with my response, but it was far too limited in size so I decided to write a much more thorough retort.
Knowing that this season of Downton takes place from 1920 to 1923 (dated most easily by references to the Teapot Dome Scandal in case you don’t catch a year on the screen), we are close enough to 100 years later. Let us examine story line by story line and see how different things are in the year 2014, especially for women.
1. First episode we’re going to get right into it. Mary is dealing with her grief over the loss of Matthew. By the end of the episode, she finally grabs herself by the bootstraps and pulls herself up…and shows up. She attends the luncheon with the tenant farmers. The Earl of Grantham owns a very large estate that is broken up into rentals. Men pay him rent, farm the land for their income, share the income with the estate owner. And they’re all men. Watch the expressions on their faces when Mary enters the room. Surprise from some. Shock from others. And her brother-in-law Tom (the former chauffeur) relinquishes his seat in the center of the table opposite the Earl because she outranks him and this is her rightful seat.
A woman sits at table in the second power position and there are no other women at the table. This is nothing today. Women run huge corporations worth billions of dollars. They’re in the CEO offices, the President and VP offices and it’s a common thing. They had to fight hard to get there, but they ARE there. But back then, 100 years ago, this woman can’t vote in an election because she doesn’t own land and isn’t over thirty. (Reference Edith complaining she didn’t have the vote in season three.) Now she is guardian over the second owner of this estate, in partnership with her father. In essence, a woman living in 1920 to 1923 is Vice President of the estate because she is guardian of the second owner, her infant son.
Then we learn that Matthew had written down his intention to make her heir to his fortune. She becomes the partnered land owner herself. Being able to vote because of that was not addressed. I wish it would have been. Perhaps next season. It would be a great continuity.
2. If sitting at the table of power is not enough of a “wow” moment, let’s move on to Edith being pregnant out of wedlock. Yes, we know this really isn’t anything anymore. Girls as young as fifteen and sixteen are popping up pregnant and having two kids by two different boys by the time they’re eighteen and hardly anyone cares anymore.
One hundred years ago, however, it was one of the most shameful things a woman could do. Remember, this was when being a virgin on your wedding night was required and if you weren’t and he found out before the wedding, he’d drop you like a hot potato for being a loose and immoral woman. Or your father would have to pay through the nose to get him to keep you. Guys could be dogs and hump their way through the country but women had to remain pristine.
So for Edith to be pregnant by a man who’s vanished off the face of the planet put her in an extremely vulnerable and precarious position. She’s not the sort to sink her hooks into the first eligible bachelor she finds and fudge the dates. She’s going to deal with the situation as it is. She could have been turned out into the streets for all she knew. Disowned. Forced to make her way through life on her wits as a fallen woman. Maybe that doesn’t sound so bad to you, but this is in the age when a woman’s job prospects were extremely limited. Teacher, seamstress, factory worker, maid. In the new incarnation of Upstairs Downstairs, the new house maid reveals that she used to be lady of her own house and had her own lady’s maid. How she got there may have been different (being a Jewish woman in early Nazi Germany), but the result is no less personally shameful to her. As the wife of a nobleman or a wealthy merchant, they were expected to be kept women who dabbled in charity work.
As Mrs. Levinson says to Madeleine in the last episode of season four: “I read about you in the American papers. Just gossip. Nothing serious. But never give them a real story.” What would they have done with this? Edith would have been utterly ruined. As she admits, Sybil might have been able to pull it off, but not her.
And the child. We saw in another season of Downton (through Ethyl) how unwed mothers were treated. We saw how the bastard child was regarded by so many in that day and age. The grandfather made it abundantly clear what he thought, in the most coarse language allowed on PBS. Apply that to the noble circles at large, with the gossip mongering. One hundred years ago, being a bastard child of a fallen woman was the most shameful state of being for a child. It was one they could never get away from since talking about your family and where you came from was common and expected.
Today, with increasing numbers of young people having children without the wedding first and the wedding itself not nearly so much a goal in the first place, I supposed it’s easy to look on this story line and dismiss it as not interesting. You must keep in mind the times. When you see the lengths to which Edith is willing to go in order to keep it a secret, you get a sense of how much shame she feels.
She sets up an appointment for an abortion. What a privilege it is today, for abortion to be safe and legal and easy to obtain in sterile conditions. In the USA. The law that made abortion legal in the UK did not pass until 1967. Upwards of 43 years after Edith’s story. And even then, it allowed for only the standard “health” issues. Today, obtaining an abortion just because you don’t want the child isn’t allowable by the laws in the UK. It’s gotten around easily enough if you have two doctors working in the same practice and they readily agree with each others assessments of “mental health of the mother.” It is a right women have in the USA that they do not have in the UK.
I supposed it’s not that big a deal for an American woman to see a young woman going to obtain an illegal abortion nearly one hundred years ago. Roe v Wade wasn’t decided until 1973. Forty years ago. Long enough that twenty year old women today have no concept of the horrors of the back room abortion. I haven’t quite decided if that’s a good thing or a bad thing.
A BBC News article dated February 4, 2013 (http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-21297404) states how the laws are being abused. And states that abortion is flat out illegal in Ireland unless the mother’s life is at risk. Illegal abortion and being charged with murder are still very real on planet Earth, and we are on the verge of having Roe v Wade overturned, if our new President gets his way. He’s stated outright that he will appoint a Supreme Court Judge who will overturn it.
So the topic of a woman facing an abortion is still a relevant and prevalent concern for women in the UK, where the show is written and takes place. It’s still a very serious issue for them. It’s becoming a big deal to many of us in the USA again. We’ll see, in the coming four years, if we go backwards those 40 years, to a time when women did not have that right over their own bodies.
Moving on to the ultimate conclusion of Edith’s pregnancy, as this article isn’t about abortion per se, but a wide variety of issues of the 1920s.
Edith walks out of the apartment, choosing not to have the abortion. That means she’s going to have the baby. The Dowager Countess gets to the heart of the matter very quickly and with remarkably little shock and fuss. While she prefers her small world in stately houses in England, she is a woman of the world. A young woman finding herself in delicate condition happens. When one might expect she’d go off like a nuclear bomb, she instead gets to the practical conversations just as she did with Ethyl.
Edith wants to give the baby to a family in the village, to have it near enough that Edith can see and know the child. Granny points out the very real dangers of this. What if they talk? What if you talk? Edith does what a lot of women did even up through the 1960s and 70s. She went away. The next episode after the idea of going to Switzerland is proposed takes place eight months later. She gave the baby to a couple in Switzerland and returned home when she had her figure back. Hard as it is for her to deal with, she says nothing to anyone who didn’t already know. Granny makes the effort to be sympathetic, but ends with Granny’s typical attempt at humor and Edith’s typical scathing reply.
In the end, Edith cannot live with her decision and makes arrangements with Mr. Drewe for her to pay him to raise the girl with his wife. Mr. Drewe is a smart man. He sees the truth all too quickly. He recognizes the urgency of keeping it secret and promises to keep her secret. I look forward to seeing how this is going to play out next season. The family is going to find out and I’m sure that Cora is going to be all kinds of annoyed that Edith denied her the opportunity to have another little grand baby in the house.
3. Skin color and interracial relationships — There’s a black man in Downton Abbey season four! And he OF ALL THE HORRORS! kisses a white woman in public and sits to tea with her in a public tea house. There weren’t many things a girl of the day could do that would be more shocking to decent society. This is more than forty years before the civil rights movement in the USA came to a head.
How far has race come and how long did it take? Lord Taylor of Warwick received the offer of a life peerage (as Baron) from then Prime Minister John Major. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lord_Taylor_of_Warwick) Life Peerage means it ends when he dies. His children cannot inherit his title. The first black peer was established in 1996. The USA elected its first black president in 2008. We have not come so far with regards to racial matters as we might think we have.
We like to think that we have progressed, but people are still hassled, harassed and persecuted in the USA for interracial relationships. Lady Mary points it out loud and clear by asking if he’s prepared for “what they will do to you.” A phantom “they” that could mean the aristocracy or the lowest lowlife who doesn’t like a black man being with a white girl. There’s a lot of room in “they” to let our imaginations go straight to someone we’ve personally known during our lifetime. As a white chick who was once married to a Mexican in Northwest Ohio, I get it. Completely. My own paternal grandmother said to me in 1991 “At least he’s not a dark Mexican.”
Mary draws a picture of character for us when she says that the Earl of Grantham would take greater issue with his being a musician than his skin color. And if they lived in a better world she wouldn’t mind his pursuing young Rose.
Granny, of course, would have had an apoplectic fit followed by a stroke. Slavery having been abolished in 1833 within the British Empire, and she having attended Victoria’s Golden Jubilee in 1887 (mentioned in season three during the visit to Scotland in the last episode), she’s old enough that slavery of the Africans wasn’t all that long before her lifetime. Perhaps thirty to thirty five years. It’s entirely likely that her grandfathers owned slaves, if we take the story line backwards through the family.
If Rose wanted to shock her mother’s socks off, she’d certainly have done it if Lady Flintshire had known. Mary’s not one to throw stones (remember Mr. Pamuk in season 1), of course, but she deals with the entire matter with the deftness of experience and a practical grasp of reality.
4. The author of the rant I read also complained that Cora’s mother returns for no reason or purpose and brings Cora’s brother with her. I see several reasons for her return.
First, let’s remember that Harold has been painted in previous seasons as a buffoon who likes his boats. But here we see he is quite the savvy man of the world, quick to spot the money-grabbing schemes of noble families facing ruin. Of course he knows about them. His own sister married a treasure hunter. We see through him how daughters were put up to the game and used by fathers who didn’t know how to make money, pawns to obtain more money to maintain themselves. They quite literally prostituted their daughters to save their own skins from ruin.
“I’m accustomed to fathers wanting me to dance with their daughters,” he says, in such a casual American tone that we the viewers can easily see it’s become rather tiresome for him. He’s not just accustomed to it. He can see it coming at him from a mile away, from all directions and the game of it both bores and annoys him. Why wouldn’t he want a good-time girl he just has to give a bauble to in order for her to go away?
Martha Levinson comes to England with the intention of seeing “the season” one more time before she dies. This woman got on a boat and traveled across the ocean just to participate in the London Season. What’s so bleepin’ important about the London Season that someone would do this?, you might ask.
Well, let’s look at the life of a girl in this era of England’s history. As a nobleman’s daughter, she’s not supposed to have a job. Remember the Dowager’s comments when Edith took the job as journalist for a newspaper “and when will she have her debut on the stage?” The nobles weren’t supposed to have “jobs” as we know them. Not as a teacher, not as a hat maker. Even Matthew’s career as a lawyer was frowned upon by Lord Grantham and his mother early in the first season. “What’s a weekend?” is one of my favorite clueless lines delivered so sincerely by Maggie Smith. The concept of a work week and a weekend is anathema to their class.
“Our life is a series of waiting rooms,” Mary said in the first season. Indeed. First the nursery, then teen room (as it were) or too young to be coddled and not old enough to be your own person, then the debutante rooms. “After five seasons, one is more a survivor than a debutante,” Rosalind says to Mary in Season One. Then finally they marry and have a purpose – having children to perpetuate the husband’s name and give him an heir to pass on his title and his property to.
“Coming out” into society was that pivotal moment in a girl’s life when she finally became woman enough that she could be courted and marry. We skipped it, Sybil’s season having just ended in an episode of season one. She was a great success, but we saw nothing of that success. So it’s easy to downplay the importance of the series of events linked with one’s debut into society.
To be presented before the King and have him know you and know your name, perhaps speak a line of conversation. I can easily imagine how thrilling that would be. Not only were they being seen by the King and Queen, likely for the first time and possibly for the only time, but they were also being shown off to the Lords of the realm and their heirs. In this place, at this moment, was nearly the entire bachelor pool of Lords and Lords in Waiting, and a great many of them were in need of a wife. I suddenly had a flash to one of Matthew McConaughey’s lines in Dazed and Confused. “So, how’s this year’s crop of freshman girls looking?”
Queen Elizabeth II stopped the practice after 1958. I take a moment as I type this line to imagine how those girls who would have had their moment in 1959 and 1960, probably up to 1970, must have felt at being suddenly denied this rite of passage their mothers, aunts cousins and sisters all had.
Forward to 2014 and there are still some “coming out” balls for some of the young ladies of England. Cotillion is still a thing here in the US. But I’m from the North and cotillion is mostly a southern thing. We have a “sweet sixteen” party and that’s about it. In Hispanic cultures, it’s the 15th birthday (quinceanera) that is celebrated, with the father putting a pair of heeled shoes on his daughter and, thus, introducing her to the guests as a woman.
The lack of such rites of passage and traditions can make them seem pointless when looking in from the outside. I think that’s rather a sad commentary on the current state of things.
5. The rape of Anna. This happens early in the season and was probably the most horrible thing they could have done to one of the most beloved characters. Of course, it had to be Anna. No one would have cared as much if it had been O’Brien or one of the maids we’ve not gotten to know.
Joanne Froggatt plays it wonderfully, the shame and shock, keeping it from her husband for as long as possible. Yup, she knows her husband all too well. He’d kill the man bare handed if he got the chance.
But think of rape today. Now, Anna could go to the hospital, have a rape kit done, a dna match could be made, photographs would be taken of any marks or bruises on her body. The culprit would be apprehended easily because she knew his name, where he worked and who for. I’m not saying the trial would be easy. That’s never easy. But photographs of her facial wounds would have been entered into evidence and Green would have been convicted and sent to jail. He was very sloppy about it all. He was violent and left marks on her. He left all sorts of evidence the CSI people would collect. Condoms existed but we know he didn’t use one.
6. Not a women’s issue, but a story arc to titillate the brain: Bates. Did he do it or didn’t he?
I love Brendan Coyle’s performance. I have since the first season. He’s just sinister enough that we the viewers know not to mess with him. We know he’s a very dangerous man when provoked. We don’t doubt it for one second.
He has a way of dealing with things by NOT dealing with them — not responding in a knee jerk if at all possible, and he pulls himself back when he does slip (grabbing Vera’s wrist, for example) — but waiting things out until the moment of appropriate action. He’s got a temper. We see that with his first wife Vera. But we hate her, so it’s fine. He takes his moment to confront his cellmate who says “I forgot I was sharing a cell with a murderer.” And Bates replies not to forget it again. So did he commit some other murder we don’t know about? Or was he very smartly playing up his reputation and the charge he’d wrongfully (…?…are we so sure???) been convicted of in order to keep control against enemies in prison?
Things that make you go Hmmmm.
So when Bates tells Mrs. Hughes “it’s not done and it’s not over,” with that particular look in his eye, we know what’s going to happen. It’s just a matter of time. When he inquires where Green’s employer lives, we know where it’s going to happen. It’s just a question of when. The expression in his eyes across the table from Green when Green says he came downstairs for some quiet during the concert. Yup, he sealed his own fate with that glib remark. Mrs. Hughes did warn him that he should keep his mouth shut and keep to the shadows. Her confrontation with him in the boot room was epic. One of my favorite moments of the entire season. Go Mrs. Hughes! You tell him!
So when Bates asks for time to go into York, we know Green’s hours are numbered. We know Bates is going to take care of business. And we love him for it. I wish we could have seen it. I’d have so been cheering him on as he spotted his mark and followed to pick his moment, and that trip and shove in the crowds with those crowds all shrieking in horror around the dead man in the street while Bates walks off calmly and goes back to the train station and his wife.
Damn that must have been so satisfying!
7. How to solve a murder.
This past summer, I saw a Hitchcock movie. Frenzy. Dude perpetrating these horrible (and oh so kinky!) crimes. Yeah, okay, I guess the necktie thing and stuff was sorta kinda kinky and shocking when it was made. Now it’s …eh, see worse on CSI. And speaking of CSI! There’s no way that dude would get away with all that stuff now. He was leaving his epithelials all over the damn place. Where’s Grissom and his team?
So here we are with Bates in 1923. There were no cameras. A person could get away with this kind of crime far more easily. But now? I live in NYC and just assume I’m on camera anytime I leave my apartment. There are five cameras in and around the building I live in. Every security camera I pass. Person of Interest and the various CSI shows all make a point of showing us how much we live our lives on camera. Bates would have been so totally busted. There might have been footage of him in the middle of the actual push. Did he speak to Green at some point? Were they seen together at a pub? Did Bates confront Green first to get a confession of sorts? I’m dying to know this kind of stuff. Or was it someone else entirely? A prior victim of Greene’s who happened to be in the right place at the right time and took advantage of that?
We see twice this season that Bates is also an accomplished forger. What he did for Molesly (is it just me or does everyone think it’s Mosely?) earlier in the season was humorous and sweet. Making it possible for Molesly to accept a gift of money from him and Anna by publicly “repaying” an IOU that had never existed. Of course it was foreshadowing for the job to come.
In the last episode, we see just how serious his abilities as forger can be. I wonder how that is going to manifest itself next season. Or what other interesting talents Mr. Bates possesses.
The family members who know about the situation they need a forgery for were assuring him that it wasn’t for nefarious intent. I found the irony of that quite chuckle-worthy. Oh no, it couldn’t possibly have been Bates himself who was the forger. No no no.
8. Trust and Loyalty between servant and Master.
Mrs. Hughes told Lady Mary about the rape, Anna being Mary’s long-time maid and Mary being in the best position to convince her father to take someone else to America for his sudden trip.
Mary sincerely wants to help Anna. If ever there was a moment in which we see friendship between Mary and Anna, it’s in these scenes. Anna just can’t talk about it and Mary cannot do anything more. When she learns who the culprit is, she’s as horrified as Anna to realize he’s coming with his employer. You can see the revulsion churning in Mary’s mind and on her face (Michelle Dockery is wonderfully expressive, more so with her face than with her voice) when she realizes her infatuation with him and his infatuation with her are putting Anna into this impossible position of coming face to face with the beast who raped her. Mary insisting Lord Gilles fire the valet, without knowing why, shows both a protection of Anna’s privacy and of her person. This is a kind of loyalty that seems to be lacking today, especially in the USA where it seems employees and employers are enemies rather than teammates.
Mary has a moment of faint-heartedness, of course. Mrs. Hughes finds the train ticket stub and they know Bates was in London. (You’d think he’d be smart enough to leave the stub on the train or throw it in the trash at the station where no one would care.) Mary struggles with right and wrong sometimes, usually at the most inopportune moments. She stops and takes two seconds to think about something and has a brief freak out before calming down and thinking with the right organ. In this case, her heart. She erred on the side of loyalty to a servant who had been nothing but loyal to her father and the family since his arrival. Bates did, after all, go back to his first wife in order to prevent Lady Mary’s own scandal from going to the papers. She’s not likely to forget that. Her father isn’t going to forget that Bates “fell on his own sword” to protect the family.
What Bates did to Green (if he was indeed the one who did it) was in vindication of his own wife, the woman who had helped Lady Mary carry a dead body the length of the house in Mary’s own moment of crisis. No one would blame him and even the “enemy within” Charles Blake said he’d probably say nothing. This kind of conspiracy and cover up so rarely works in this day and age.
The author of the review I read is quite young. She lives in a society in which all of these things are blasé, unimportant, not interesting because it’s all she’s ever known.
But I grew up in the 1970s and 80s, when a lot of these issues were still prevalent. Roe v Wade was new and violence at abortion clinics, bombing them and killing doctors and nurses, was on the nightly news. It was frightening.
My mother, divorcing in 1971, was part of the last generation of women who were supposed to honor and obey their husband and stay with him even if he beat her or cheated with the secretary. I grew up as the only child (or one of two kids) in class whose parents were divorced. Now, it’s much the opposite and parents who have never been married is the normal state of things. I’m not saying that’s a good thing or a bad thing. It is what it is. Better one loving parent than two who are always at each others throats.
Vastly differing perspectives.
I saw the historical significance of events in this season of Downton Abbey. I saw the personal interactions and reactions. I was riveted and delighted. I think she and I were watching different shows.
In the end, I have only one thing to say to her: Go back to watching the superficiality of Two Broke Girls, honey. The grownups are watching Downton.