DENTON, Texas (WOMENSENEWS)–The season-five opener of “Downton Abbey” was tough for Lord Robert Crawley and I expect his travails will build as the season continues with the second episode this Sunday.
The Lord’s feelings were hurt when the Town Council led by–gasp–a woman bypassed him, asking Carson the butler to head the war memorial committee.
Worse yet, his niece Lady Rose surprised Lord Crawley by inviting Sara Bunting, the beautiful, sharp-tongued schoolteacher, to dinner. Sara made her socialist views known at the dinner table and insisted on going downstairs to compliment the cooks, annoying Crawley to no end.
What is going on with the women of “Downton Abbey”? Don’t they understand their place in a patriarchy?
While Hollywood is lean on strong female characters, author Julian Fellowes saturates his 1924 cast with them at a time when English women were only four years away from winning equal voting rights with men.
The high budget British soap opera portrays the intersecting circles of Lord Crawley’s family, Downton Abbey’s aristocratic upstairs inhabitants and the servants living downstairs. This brings viewers into a throng of topics, including marriage outside of social circles, homophobia, rape and unplanned pregnancies. Many of these issues remain resonant today.
Critics say the series is a predictable, tired satire of Britishness, which may explain its waning popularity in Britain.
American audiences’ devotion is ongoing, however, and as a follower I can offer a few possible reasons. One could be the guilty pleasure of imaging ourselves at the top of a class system we never experienced. Who wouldn’t want their newspapers ironed or their clothing laid out? Edwardian values ruled in 1924 Britain. These were the same chaps who, it is said, let hundreds of people go down with the Titanic because they couldn’t imagine being in the same lifeboats with people from steerage.
For female viewers, Downton’s pleasure is also that of a historical nightmare from which we can escape. The wardrobes and ease that some women enjoy presents an enviable fantasy but the overall class system depicted by the series imposes an oppressive system of patriarchy on every woman.
Subverting the System
At that time, British women couldn’t own property, not all of them could vote and they had no rights if their husbands died. Like water penetrating cracks, even the upper-crust women of “Downton Abbey” seem eager to subtly dismantle the British class system holding them back.
Here is how some of the strong female characters subvert the system, starting with the strongest women, who work downstairs:
Mrs. Hughes, the housekeeper, chose a lifetime of service and is in charge of all female servants at Downton Abbey, so she supervises more employees than Carson, the butler. Carson and Mrs. Hughes provide balance; he maintains status quo while she embraces change. When male employees react with disgust to a gay coworker, Mrs. Hughes offers kindness, demanding the same from the men. Mrs. Hughes can firmly but graciously put Carson, or any male employee, in his place.
Anna Bates, lady’s maid to Lady Mary, is respected downstairs and upstairs. Even Lady Mary seeks her opinion on important matters. Because of her absolute trustworthiness, Anna is Downton Abbey’s moral compass.
Daisy, the kitchen maid, inhabits the lowest servants’ rung. She is a hard worker with strong opinions and even stronger aspirations. Right now, in season five, she is struggling to master math. At a time when servants keep positions for life, Daisy considers her options.
Cora Crawley, the Countess of Grantham, is an American heiress whose dowry saved Downton. While assimilated into English society, her American perspective helps her husband, Lord Grantham, accept changes gripping the estate.
Lady Edith Crawley is often forgotten and not as pretty as her older sister. An aspiring writer, she is bold and courts scandal when she decides to secretly bear a child out of wedlock and bring the child to live close to the estate.
Lady Mary Crawley, the beautiful elder daughter, is the recently widowed, eligible single mother. Her increasingly active role in estate business is cutting edge for 1924, and she offers strong opinions unapologetically. In the season opener, she plans to have premarital sex to test the waters with a potential mate, behavior that would cause Lord Crawley to croak if he ever found out.
Three Other Strong Characters
Isobel Crawley, the widowed mother of Matthew Crawley, Lady Mary’s late husband, is modern and liberal, putting her at odds with the Crawley family. As a trained nurse, she is better educated than other family members. Isobel is happily single and chooses to live modestly. She sympathizes with down-on-their-luck women, finding ways to help, rather than scorn them.
Violet Crawley, the Dowager Countess, is the matriarch who represents the old world. Reactionary and status conscious, she is always right, even when she isn’t. Her extra-assertiveness may reflect a lifetime in a patriarchal society; she can level anyone with her witty one line retorts or a single raised eyebrow. She undercuts Isobel’s chances with a lord by hosting a luncheon and inviting another woman, from a higher social rung, to catch his eye in the season opener. The Dowager Countess, however, advocates for her granddaughters, as evidenced by her tacit support of Lady Edith’s unplanned pregnancy and by her endorsement of Lady Mary’s growing role managing the estate.
Lady Rose MacClare, the great-niece of the Dowager Countess, entered society in season four when she was presented at court. She infuses the Crawleys with youthful flapper rebellion, openly challenging patriarchal notions. Her affair with a black band singer in season four was the kind of behavior that could ruin a lady’s reputation in 1924, and was also an attempt to drive her mother, whom she dislikes, mad.
The series may be popular because the struggles of post-World War I Britain resonate with viewers living with financial insecurity. Its characters struggle to make sense of a changing world.
Downton would be more interesting with a woman of color as a character. The series is not historical, but entertainment, so women of color could fit into the cast.
Apart from the constant sibling rivalry between Lady Mary and Lady Edith, the women in the series work together with shared purpose, both upstairs and downstairs, to keep the estate running smoothly. Even if they let the men think they are in charge, women in the series, despite their non-status in a patriarchal society, are in control.
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