Back in the Dolls House Part 2: Lady Edith’s Pyrrhic victory

WARNING: Contains spoilers for those who have not yet watched the series 6 Christmas Special

In a blog post of the same title, I have pointed out how the historical reality facing millions of women of all classes after the First World War meant that Lady Mary’s story line since series 4 which culminated in a second marriage was anachronistic, poorly handled and illustrated how bankrupt Downton’s narrative has become since Matthew’s death.

This year’s Christmas special which signals the end of this programme after six series in my opinion was highly unsatisfactory and contrived. However since Downton has barely lived up to its hype then perhaps I was expecting too much but as the Christmas special dragged on with nothing happening and transmogrifying into an episode of the popular 1990s programme Blind Date, all that was missing was an appearance from Cilla Black who fronted the programme in order to liven up what was essentially a lifeless, lacklustre and laboured two hours.

One by one, characters were being paired up and happy endings clunked into place, with even Isobel Crawley finally tying the knot with Lord Merton after some skulduggery from her and the Dowager Countess to rescue him from his odious son and daughter-in-law, and a hint that Mrs Patmore and Mr Mason will get their happily ever after. The piece de la resistance however was the marriage of Lady Edith to Bertie Pelham (now the Marquess of Hexham after the sudden death of the incumbent who happened to a distant cousin – shades of Matthew Crawley here). If one recalls what happened in series 6, it was Edith’s inability to disclose the true identity of her daughter Marigold that scuppered her chances of marriage to Pelham and it is only after the usual convoluted twists and turns that the Christmas special ended in marriage between the two.

It might just be me but I found myself unmoved by the wedding and thought it was a cop out especially in light of the fact that Edith is also in her thirties which by the standards of the 1920s is middle aged, already has a daughter and crucially has the resources to make the most of the greater opportunities afforded to women during this period.

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One aspect that made Edith different from her sister Mary apart from the clichéd “unlucky in life and love” is that midway in series 3 she starts a career in writing after a letter she writes to a newspaper is noticed by a magazine editor, Michael Gregson, who offers her a job in his magazine. This being Downton Abbey where everyone’s right to an emotional relationship is paramount, she begins a relationship with Gregson which is essentially a rebound after being jilted at the altar by Sir Anthony Strallan. To cut a long story short, he is married but gets her pregnant then disappears to Germany in order to obtain citizenship which will enable him to divorce his mentally disabled wife and marry Edith. Later he turns up dead and she is left with a daughter whose existence she contrives to keep a secret from her own immediate family.

As a result of Gregson’s death, she is left his estate which includes his home in London and ownership of his magazine. Yet again however, any potential for this to show viewers that women such as Edith have more options than marriage and motherhood after the war is shunted aside in favour of her disastrous love life which casts her as either Downton’s answer to Job from the Bible or the Strictly Come Dancing professional Anton du Beke: forever lumbered with disasters and duds. In an interview, Julian Fellowes claimed that certain people are doomed to be forever unlucky which to me betrays a lack of understanding of human nature and the idea that people are the architects of their own destiny and that luck only plays a small part in a person’s fate.

While no doubt that Edith and Bertie’s wedding pleased the fans, I thought this was again another sign of Fellowes not wanting to be more original and that historical accuracy which he claims is important to him rings hollow. The wedding shows his obsession with marriage and the emotional life that he has imposed pretty much on every character with since the end of series 2 in the absence of a coherent narrative. While there was much crowing that Edith would become a marchioness and chatelaine of a large castle (conveniently forgetting that Bertie’s predecessor was essentially bankrupt) as demonstrated by her parents’ embarrassing behaviour in acting like Mr and Mrs Crawley from Pinner whose daughter has landed a jackpot on the marriage market, in reality this wedding is a Pyrrhic victory. The determination of her new mother-in-law to make her a chatelaine and her son into an exemplary moral landlord shows a denial of the reality that this this way of life is dying – so in effect Edith has essentially been shackled to the past she was making every attempt to leave behind.

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Having Edith also get married also shows how Fellowes just like with Mary ignores the alternatives that are open to a woman like her. Given that Edith (like Mary) is also in her thirties and hence considered middle aged, she would have been overlooked by men who had several seasons worth of debutantes to choose from. And the fact that Pelham is now a marquess, in real life someone like him would be more inclined to choose a younger woman who could bear children (preferably sons) in order for Pelham to pass on the title and what’s left of the estate: not a woman in her thirties whose family does not have a reputation for fertility.

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I may be in the minority but I think it would have been better had Edith not married Bertie and instead moved permanently to London, taking Marigold with her and focus on building her career as a writer and magazine owner. Apart from reflecting more the historical reality of the period, Edith with her thriving career would demonstrate that beginning in the 1920s, women were becoming aware that there were alternatives to simply being wives and mothers. People were also increasingly looking to self-made personalities not aristocrats as role models and this signals another shift as the aristocracy are further pushed to the margins and into the realms of irrelevance.

Just like with Edith, Daisy Mason the assistant cook is another one who has been given short shrift by Fellowes. Apart from spending the full run of Downton Abbey whining and despite the education she has been given by several Good Samaritans, in the end the education and passing her examinations has been meaningless as she’s paired with Andy the footman who has taken on a position with her father-in-law. For all the bellowing about “CHAAAAANNNNGGEEEE!” nothing has changed. Mrs Hughes is going to give up a job that gives her status, independence and respect to be nurse to a man who is crotchety and picky when he’s well, never mind sick and has moreover had to hand over his cherished job and family to a hated rival – and you could see from the barely concealed smirk on Thomas’s face how much he enjoyed that. Cora on the other hand, far from “spreading her wings” and becoming more independent has finally discovered after 35 years of idleness what she should have been doing as countess in the first place. It seems to me that what Fellowes is saying here, despite his admiration for strong women is that they shouldn’t bother to exert their strength in improving themselves, carving out careers and making the world better. Instead they should simply get married and exert that strength by manipulating their husbands.

Going back to Edith; despite the bad choices, the tiresome squabbling with Mary and the appalling way she has used and abused the family who cared for Marigold, I always thought that she had the most potential to break away from the past and establish herself as her own person with a thriving business and career just as many real life women did in the 1920s. It seems here that what Fellowes is saying is that Edith has had a taste of freedom and independence with the magazine but just in case she gets too much of a taste for that and being her own woman she’s been hauled back to do what women like her are supposed to do, which is marry, support her husband and prop up a way of life that’s in its death throes. She says to Mary when she finds out her sister’s role in bringing about the engagement that she, Edith, has her life back, but in reality she’s had it taken away from her. She’s swapped Cora and the Dowager for mother-in-law and just like she doesn’t stand up to them I don’t see her standing up to her mother-in-law; the circumstances in which Bertie broke up with her in the first place could return to haunt her at the first sign of trouble; and no doubt she’ll be “encouraged” to give up the magazine as it doesn’t fit with being a marchioness and a chatelaine. So far from a happy ending, Edith continues her run of disaster of Biblical proportions. Which is a tragedy of epic proportions really.

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Book Reviews: Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey and Lady Catherine and the Real Downton Abbey by the Countess of Carnarvon

Once Downton Abbey became a household name, it was inevitable that curiosity about the history of Highclere Castle (where the series is filmed) and the family that has lived in it for more than 300 years would follow. And the current Countess of Carnarvon has obliged with biographies featuring two of her predecessors – Almina the 5th countess and Catherine the 6th countess. Both women could be described as chalk and cheese: with Almina forceful and gregarious while Catherine was more shy and retiring. One can see both biographies as a way to cash in on Downton Abbey’s success given that both women’s tenure as chatelaine of Highclere Castle coincided with the years in which the programme was set.

The connection with Downton Abbey is stronger with Almina’s story as there are some parallelisms between the real life Carnarvons and the fictional Granthams. The fifth earl of Carnarvon’s principal claim to fame today is assisting Howard Carter with his discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun in 1922. However this would not have been possible had he not married Almina Wombwell, officially the daughter of Fred and Marie Wombwell but in reality her natural father was Sir Alfred de Rothschild one of the wealthiest men in Britain. Through Sir Alfred’s generosity, Lord Carnarvon was enabled to carry on with his twin passions for archaeology and automobiles while Almina through marriage was able to rise above her uncertain social status – the classic case of money in exchange for title, status and in Almina’s case respectability. However the marriage seemed to be a love match: the 5th earl overrode all concerns about Almina’s parentage in order to marry her and their marriage to all intents and purposes was a happy one.

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The 6th countess, born Catherine Wendell, was an American but not an heiress instead belonging to an old but upper middle class family from New York. In fact her nationality and crucially her lack of money was one reason why the 5th earl objected to her as a potential daughter-in-law but her marriage to the only son and heir to the Carnarvon earldom was championed by Almina. At first the marriage was happy but gradually cracks began to appear brought about by the 6th earl’s affairs and Catherine’s depression and drinking problem. The marriage ended in divorce and while the 6th earl remarried the Austrian ballet dancer and choreographer Tilly Losch, that marriage too was unhappy and resulted in another divorce.

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Reading both biographies, their strengths lie in the way the current countess writes about the minutiae of life at Highclere during the tenures of both Almina and Catherine as countess and the comparison and contrast between the lifestyle of the fifth and sixth earls. The fifth earl and countess lived and entertained lavishly and opulently as befitting their status, all bolstered by Rothschild money, while the sixth earl and countess lived much more simply in contrast to their predecessors, thanks to the need to downsize after the First World War and pay off the fifth earl’s death duties.

Both biographies also shed light on aspects of life in a landed estate and the First World War that Downton Abbey has omitted – such as the elaborate servants’ hierarchy, the importance of the outdoor staff such as the gardeners, gamekeepers, work men and the estate managers and life between the wars when the Carnarvons saw the dispersal of the family’s collection of Old Master paintings, family jewels and vast acres of land. What is crucial as well is the author highlighting the role of Highclere Castle and the family during the First World War when even before war was officially declared, Almina had already offered the castle as a hospital as well as taking a course in nursing: which meant that by the middle of the war, she was able to assist during complicated and dangerous operations. Her husband on the other hand foresaw that aircraft would play a pivotal role should war break out and offered his expertise on aerial photography. Other members of the family also threw their weight behind the war effort, the most notable being the Hon Aubrey, the fifth earl’s younger brother, who was rejected due to being half blind but who decided to stow away with a cousin sent to the front. Instead of being sent home, his skill in foreign languages meant that he served as a liaison and translator for the generals and soldiers.

This showed how the Carnarvons were highly active in getting behind the war effort both on the battle field and the home front and this is a major omission in Downton Abbey. The unwillingness of the fictional Granthams to pull their weight and get behind the war effort flies in the face of historical reality when the aristocracy were offering their services with alacrity and performed their duties to the best of their ability.

However both biographies have some weaknesses. First of all is the title of the book; it’s important to get titles and forms of addresses right and to use both “Lady Almina” and “Lady Catherine” is incorrect since the use of “Lady” before a woman’s first name is only reserved for the daughters of dukes, marquesses and earls and both women were neither. Call me picky but if the author can’t get that minor detail right – and these books are written by a countess so some familiarity with titles is assumed – what else has she not bothered to get right?

Another issue I have is the use of The Real Downton Abbey as part of the title, I see this as a form of insecurity – are these women not interesting enough for their stories to stand on their own two feet without the handicap of a mediocre period drama that happens to be filmed at the house?

There is also little to no analysis of both Almina and Catherine’s personalities, lives and the world and times they lived in. Of both biographies, Almina’s is much more interesting owing to her character and sheer force of will but there is no real sense of who the real woman was good and bad, warts and all. It’s also the case with Catherine but I suspect that fundamentally there is really nothing about the woman which would merit a much more in depth biography.

Both biographies are adequate as light hearted introductory reads to British aristocratic life at the turn of and the early twentieth century but there are other publications that are superior to both most notably David Cannadine’s The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy (1990) which gives the reader a much more in-depth look at how the British aristocracy found themselves supplanted and reduced to irrelevancy by the twentieth century. As for Almina, I believe that in the fullness of time she deserves a better and more in depth biography that will supplant the current countess’s work.

 

Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey and Lady Catherine and the Real Downton Abbey by the Coutness of Carnarvon were published in 2011 and 2013 respectively by Hodder and Stoughton