Last month, Masterpiece Theater’s newest period drama garnered thousands of besotted fans. Downton Abbey opens with news of Titanic’s tragedy and closes with news that Britain has entered the war in 1914—in between, the show provides an entry into Edwardian upstairs-downstairs intricacies within the magnificent estate of Downton Abbey. The lapidary script by Julian Fellowes (Gosford Park), lush cinematography, and exquisite performances from legendary actors such as Maggie Smith, are rich indeed.
I especially enjoyed my Sunday evening viewings because a husband who usually declines period dramas as effectively as Darcy declines country dances not only acquiesced to sit beside me, but was soon discussing the drama with impressive alacrity.
But since the season’s end, I have been reflecting on certain matters not usually inspired by the viewing of televised period dramas.
Lady Mary Crawley (played by Michelle Dockery) is at the heart of the story. Though she was engaged to the heir of Downton Abbey—her cousin Patrick—he dies on the Titanic. As the oldest daughter in a family with no sons, she cannot inherit, so her father begins to groom his third cousin Matthew Crawley (a middle-class country solicitor) to be the next heir.
And Lady Mary? She is in limbo until she can marry. Her qualities—wealth, aristocratic lineage, and beauty—recommend her for such a fate, but these qualities turn against her: the interior landscape is fraught with frustration. We watch someone who knows herself well enough to dislike what she sees, and yet chooses to deny the process of change.
Lady Mary’s first line is in response to the news of Patrick’s drowning: “Does this mean I’ll have to go into full mourning?” Her introduction is sharp, cold, and in many ways appropriate to the character we’ll come to know. But by the end of the season, we’ll have seen another side. We’ll have seen the subtle portrait of the common agony of conflicting desires.
During dinner, Cousin Matthew is bewildered by his new surroundings but holds steady. Mary surpasses her standard-issue snubs by comparing him to a monster from Greek mythology to whom a young woman is sacrificed.
Later, in a more honest exchange, she advises him not to listen to what she says. This unkind comparison shows the desire to impose her will, but after recognizing her cruelty, she tries to make her words meaningless. She does not, though, change them.
Mary confesses to Matthew that her empty life makes her angry, and yet, as she longs for something truer, she cannot turn from the social game. At another dinner, she and Matthew connect in a genuine way and both are eager to continue conversing. But when she makes a bet with her sister, she desires to prove herself the more wealthy, aristocratic, and beautiful sister—so, she forgoes Matthew to flirt with a man she really doesn’t care about.
A final example can be seen in the way she treats Matthew after they are engaged. As Lady Mary’s conversations with her aunt and grandmother reveal, she is not cavalier in breaking their engagement.
But is she as distraught with the act of dumping him as she is by the fact that this is what she must do? In questioning if she loves Matthew enough to stay with him even if he is not Downton’s heir, to answer ‘yes’ is unthinkable.
The sincere connection she made with Matthew is not enough to trump the desire to be the Lady Mary she has always been.
In many ways she is like literature’s most spirited, and trapped, heroines—Thackeray’s Rebecca Sharp, James’ Isabel Archer, and Wharton’s Lily Bart—whose ill desires, and self-knowledge of those ill desires, cause distress, but not alteration.
Is this just pride? Perhaps—but it could also be that these desires have become so defining that to alter them is to forfeit too much.
We have little reason to give Mary sympathy—but we do have reason for empathy. She shows us the tragedy of being caught in a certain version of ourselves, a version that we may not even like.
Given the choice to change, we prefer to preserve the desires that we imagine give us a place, a standing, in the world. These desires set us apart (make us feel special) and help us fit in, just as we’d like to.
Thinkers as diverse as Aristotle, King David, and Dallas Willard have helped us understand the conflicting will. But to see it fleshed out so minutely, even glamorously, in Downton Abbey, has yielded an unusual opportunity for self-examination.
Is it because Lady Mary makes this self-defense somehow…poetic?
Perhaps. But as I take stock of my own strange defense of the ugly self, I think there is more going on here.
The story leaves a powerful residue in the memory because it shows someone trapped within a persona. To see this is to recognize the need to escape the trap, even if that means the unthinkable—forfeiting those self-defining desires.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Written by: Jessica Brown
Jessica Brown is a graduate of the SPU MFA in Creative Writing. She lives in Los Feliz, which is a little nook of Los Angeles by Griffith Park. She's an adjunct professor at Biola University, and every so often she surfaces from the land of writing fiction to write about . . . fiction.