Downton Abbey: Feminism Understated part two

And we’re back. Hope I didn’t keep you waiting too long. This go around we’re going to talk about the women of Downton and how they are the characters you should be paying attention to.

This show right here
This show right here

To recap: Downton tells the story of Lord Grantham, his family, and servants. It’s a period drama spanning the early parts of the 20th century (that’s 1900-some such for those of you who never paid attention in history class). The first three seasons see us through WWI and season four picks up in 1922.

Season four which I am DYING to finish. I will not turn to torrent. I will not turn to torrent. I have the season pass on iTunes.  I will not torrent.


If there is a show that perfectly states the power of the female, it’s this one. Writers, take heart, you CAN have a strong female lead without allowing her to be defined by the men around her. In fact, quite the opposite. In this world, men are defined by their women.

We’re told the story in a seamless mesh of upstairs and downstairs by an ensemble cast. No one is the main character, everyone owns their own story.

Spoilers, sweetie.

The female bits of the family (in no particular order):

Lady Grantham: Cora is the mistress of the house. She looks like a frail and delicate creature, but make no mistake, she runs the household. It’s her fortune that keeps Downton in good keeping for two of the seasons. Sure she surrendered it to her husband upon marriage, but Lord Grantham knows damn good and well where the money came from. We see the scheming side of Cora right at the beginning when she and her mother-in-law conspire to have her eldest daughter, Mary, married to her cousin, Matthew, who is the heir apparent after the last heir’s untimely death on the Titanic. Cora doesn’t exercise much power or freedom as an entity separate from her husband except when Downton gets turned into a hospital for Officers during WWI (when she does this, Lord Grantham feels the tide of change and seeks comfort in a housemaid) and again when she blames Lord Grantham and his ‘old fashioned ways’ when Sybil died shortly after childbirth. Cora very much has a passive hold over her husband.

Lady Mary: The eldest of three daughters. She is headstrong, beautiful in a porcelain sort of way, temperamental, and really doesn’t know what she wants until it’s taken away from her. Mary is thrown from one engagement and finds herself in the arms of a Turkish diplomat. It doesn’t end well for the diplomat, giving Mary a potentially ruinous secret to carry with her into another engagement with a man everyone else but her can see she doesn’t want. She has a hard shell that would mask a scared little girl in any other world. In this one, however, her hard shell is who she is as a person. There isn’t much softness in Mary to go around. She is her father’s daughter and will continue Downton Abbey for as long as she is alive. A marriage to Matthew gives her the man she’s wanted all along and a son to carry on Downton when the time comes. She changes with her marriage and becomes much softer, except where Downton is concerned, and accuses Matthew of not being on the family’s side when he refuses an inheritance given to him by a former fiance’s father. Mary finally wins out, however, and Downton is saved. She goes through another shift when she sides with Matthew against her father on the future of Downton Abbey and the changes needed to be made to keep the Abbey from falling into ruin. However, Mary is very much a slave to her emotions and falls into a deep depression when her husband winds up dead, a victim of a 19th century car crash.

O’Brien: The woman that will probably go to hell. She is just as rotten as Thomas and continually schemes against Bates for no other reason than she can. It’s schadenfreude at its finest, where O’Brien is the cause of others misery. Only when she kicks soap under Lady Grantham’s bath does she have a change of heart, but then it’s too late. She carries the responsibility of killing Lord and Lady Grantham’s unborn son with her.  That makes her change. Sort of. She still hates Bates and still schemes against him. Adding Thomas in her list of people to scheme against and manipulate just spices things up a bit.

Anna Bates:  Probably the easiest character to love out of the whole show. Anna is sweet, and little, and she’ll be damned if anyone is going to keep her away from Mr. Bates. She knows what-and who-she wants and goes after it (him) full throttle, even going so far as to marry Mr. Bates when he gets sent to jail so she can have the visitors benefits to keep him informed as to exactly how she’s going to get him out of prison. Hers is a genuine love story, untainted by social status or monetary benefits. She loves Bates and refuses any offer by another man when Bates leaves for the good of the Abbey in the first season.

Lady Sybil: The youngest daughter and the most headstrong. Another woman who knows what she wants and daddy be damned. Sybil is the social change of the household. She marries a chauffeur, bears him a daughter, and by force of her will and the love of her sisters for her, secures Tom’s place in the Downton household. Sybil becomes a nurse and gets Downton converted to a convalescent hospital for officers. She runs to Ireland with her husband, rejoicing in her relative obscurity in the country. She is the daughter that realises there is more to life than just sitting around and looking pretty until a husband comes out of the woodwork.

Mrs. Hughes: She runs the house and balances out Cranston nicely. The two a quite a pair even if they don’t know it yet. This is another woman who gave up marriage for a career. Not because she didn’t want to get married, but because she loves the life she has and can’t see herself giving it up (much to Cranston’s relief!).

Daisy: Kitchen help and kind of silly. She’s sweet and has a moral compass so strong it almost hurts. Poor Daisy is not okay with marrying one of the footmen on his wartime deathbed. She does, though it hurts her terribly, and can’t understand why no one sees the arrangement the same way she does; as a horrible, horrible lie. As the show progresses, however, Daisy comes to understand that maybe she really did love him and maybe what she did was the right thing to do. His father’s offer of her taking over the farm when he’s gone takes her completely by surprise.

Lady Edith: The middle daughter. Someone needs to give the poor girl a break. She is raised in a world where girls are brought up to compete against each other. Whilst Sybil loves both of her sisters, Edith and Mary are at odds with each other. Both girls sabotage the other to emotionally devastating effects. Cora doesn’t help matters either. Edith falls in love quickly and is so desperate for a man it honestly makes your heart hurt. The last straw comes when she’s jilted at the altar. Resigning herself to a spinsterhood, she takes it on a whim to write to a paper. Surprise comes when she is accepted as a regular columnist.

The Dowager Countess: Played by Maggie Smith. Who owns every scene she’s in. The Dowager is mummy dearest (with as much eye rolling and sarcasm as possible) who inserts herself into Lord Grantham’s life and proceeds to remind everyone of the social niceties. But in a way that only Maggie Smith can. Which is awesome.

Lady Crawley: Matthew’s mother and a woman ahead of her time. She is the widow of a doctor, has been trained as a nurse, boy does she have an opinion. To distraction. She is a beautiful counterpoint to both Cora and the Dowager Countess. The modern woman fighting against the traditionalists. It’s marvellous to watch. Especially when she and Maggie Smith go at it.

Mrs. Padmore: Florid-faced, overbearing, chef, softie at heart, runs her kitchen with an iron fist, Mrs. Padmore is very happy where she is and she’ll have no new fangled gadgets in her kitchen, thanks very much. Even cataracts can’t stop her, though they try very hard!

The women of Downton are much more varied and diverse. These are women who have their own wants and needs, who are fully realised characters but in much more subtle ways than you think. There is a difference between ‘defined by a man’ and ‘defining your man’. The women of Downton are definitely the latter. By virtue of their sex, upbringing, and societal rules at large, they are possessions of men. And no one likes that, not really. These women, adhere to the rules of society, but like any other rules, they are seriously made to be bent. And Downton women bend them to the breaking point.

Tune in next time where we’ll discuss just how the definition of ‘strong women’ and ‘feminism’ has been warped just a teeny bit. We’ll also talk about why it is that interviewers don’t sit down with a woman writer and get HER opinion on the matter. Because, Neil Gaiman, George R. R. Martin, and Joss Whedon? Seriously?