At the start of Downton Abbey, the Earl of Grantham sadly learns of the death of his cousin and cousin’s son on the Titanic. This event places the Earl and Countess of Grantham in a tragic and unexpected situation, for both men – the heir and the spare – were in line to inherit Downton Abbey.
The earl had never anticipated such a tragic turn of events. He had married Cora, an American heiress, in a marriage of convenience in order to maintain his landed estate in the manner in which it had been run for centuries. During the marriage negotiations, the old Earl of Grantham struck a hard bargain and Cora’s fortune became completely tied up in the entail. This was no great matter to the young couple, who were certain they would produce an heir. While the earl eventually fell in love with his beautiful bride, they were unable to produce a son, their union resulting in three daughters.
And so the plot of Downton Abbey thickens, for lovely Lady Mary, the earl’s eldest daughter, was engaged to the younger heir, Patrick. But Patrick died and now Matthew Crawley, the earl’s third cousin once removed, stands next in line to inherit. Unlike the previous heirs, who were accustomed to the ways of the upper classes, the very reluctant Matthew must learn how to run a great estate from the ground up … and Lady Mary, by dint of being a woman and as the result of an unbreakable entail, is left out in the cold.
The plot line of Downton Abbey weaves the stories of the privileged who live upstairs with the lives of those who serve them, and involves the intricacies of the entail and running the estate. Of the three sisters, only Lady Mary plays a major role. But the other two, Lady Edith and Lady Sybil, faced challenges that were typical of upper class women of the era. As Jane Austen astutely observed, “ There are not so many men of fortune in the world as there are pretty girls who deserve them,” a fact that the middle sister, Lady Edith, comes to know too well, and one that Lady Sybil ignores, for she has modern notions of a woman’s place in Society.
Lady Mary Crawley (Michelle Dockerey)
The eldest of the three girls, and the most beautiful and self-assured, is Lady Mary Crawley who knows her worth. Upset that the entail cannot be undone, she realizes that her only way to marry “up” or to financial security is to find a wealthy man with (preferably) a title. The new heir, Matthew Crawley, in no way interests her. From the moment they meet, snobby Lady Mary looks down her patrician nose at the upstart heir, who, she doubts, even knows how to hunt. (Lady Mary might have no use for Matthew, but he has more than a passing interest in her.)
Ever the opportunist when it comes to snaring a suitable mate, Lady Mary sets her sights on a duke, as well as Evelyn Napier, a gentleman who is besotted with her. But then a handsome and exotic visitor catches her eye and makes her heart flutter uncharacteristically, and Lady Mary’s safe and secure world will never be the same again.
Lady Edith Crawley (Laura Carmichael)
Lady Edith can hardly contain her jealousy of Lady Mary’s beauty, her easy popularity with men, and her status as elder daughter. As the second daughter, she feels invisible. Lady Mary barely mourns her fiance, which triggers Lady Edith’s resentment of her older sister and her cool reaction to his death. Not that she is entirely to be pitied, for her jealousy drives her to snoop on her sister, and tattle tales that should never be shared.
The complex, nasty relationship between the two sisters is a result of the keen pressure that women still felt to marry up and well in the Edwardian era. Upper class women, as Amanda Vickery pointed out in her excellent series, At Home With the Georgians, were raised to live passive lives and accept the fact that they were second-class citizens. While Lady Edith plots and schemes to find a husband (if even from her older sister’s romantic leavings), Lady Sybil, the younger sister, is forging a role for herself.
Lady Sybil Crawley (Jessica Brown-Findlay)
Lively, upbeat, and compassionate, Lady Sybil plays no role in the spiteful drama of her two older sisters. She is too busy admiring suffragettes, supporting Gwen, the housemaid, in her ambition to become a secretary, reading political tracts and attending forbidden rallies. Even her taste in clothes is flamboyant, and one suspects that as Lady Sybil matures she will become a character with a capital “C”.
In Downton Abbey, Lady Edith and Lady Mary demonstrate the dependent role that women still played in the early 20th century. But Lady Sybil was another creature altogether. After the end of World War I, she would no doubt be dancing the Charleston in flapper clothes, and after turning thirty, exercising her right to vote and earn her own living.
More about Downton Abbey, to air on Masterpiece Classic, Sunday, January 9th at your local PBS station: