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Edith Crawley and Sisterhood

October 25, 2011

I want to talk to you about Lady Edith Crawley, the middle of the Downton Abbey Crawley sisters. In order to do so, I’ll discuss plot developments that may be considered spoilers until episode 2×06. This has been your official warning.

Like Edith Crawley, I have plenty of experience being a sister, dealing with sisters, loving sisters, having complicated feelings about sisters, and being a middle child. I started off as the middle child between two other sisters (one three years older, one seven years younger), but quickly gained two additional sisters who nudged me out of the middle spot, into that of second in line. This is a very long way of saying that I understand many sisterly pitfalls and frustrations, and an even longer way of saying that this understanding did not foster any warm feelings in me towards Edith Crawley’s character in series 1 of Downton Abbey. However, that’s changed over the course of the second – current – series, and I’d like to explore why.

In the first series, Edith doesn’t function as a foil to her older sister Mary, exactly, but she’s not her own person either. She’s the not-as-pretty, not-as-wily, not-as-witty younger sister with a major sibling-rivalry-related axe to grind. She’s wholly responsible for leaking the story about the circumstances of Kemal Pamuk’s death and as such becomes wholly responsible for many of the other troubles she causes Mary (most recently, her ill-advised planned marriage to Richard Carlisle). She appears to be driven mostly by spite and jealousy – letting her sadness and anger over never being the most-beloved sister get the better of her. Her early infatuation with Matthew Crawley is written as laughable and ridiculous, and the more she seeks recognition or retribution, the sillier she starts to look. At the end of the series, we are left with an image of Edith as a spoiled, nasty child who can’t get over herself. And indeed, that’s how I saw her going into the second series.

But like so often, war changes everything and brings out the best in some. In the case of Edith, however, war doesn’t only bring out the best in her, it also provides the viewer with more context for her actions in the first series. Though Edith’s approach to love in the earlier episodes of the series is still somewhat silly (it is inadvisable for a Lady to fall in love with a married farmer, after all), her other accomplishments are far more positive, and no longer go unnoticed. We see her coming into her own and asserting herself through learning how to drive and through learning how to work on a farm, and finally see the culmination of her determination to make herself useful when she becomes indispensable to the officers recovering at Downton. The recognition her family is forced to give her regarding this latter accomplishment represents, to me, a turning point in how the viewer is supposed to look at Edith as well. She’s no longer a petulant child, but rather a quiet, supportive whirlwind of awesome. The positive progression of her character continues through her struggle of telling Mary about Matthew going MIA and reached a high point (so far) in her fight to get the disfigured man who walks onto the scene in episode 2×06 recognized as Patrick Crawley, the rightful heir to Downton, who was supposed to have drowned on the Titanic in 1912 (at the very beginning of the series).

Now we are reminded of the fact that it was Edith, not Mary, who was in love with Patrick – even though it was Mary who was slated to marry him. And we are reminded that it was Edith, not Mary, who grieved for him in silence. And we may be reminded that sisters have very long memories, especially for any perceived wrongs committed. As an “ugly duckling” middle child (without the alabaster skin and dark tresses of her sisters) with no discernible talents to recommend her, Edith must have already built up quite a reservoir of resentment towards her sister(s) even before the events of 1912 (a fact that is often alluded to throughout the series). Mary’s “stealing” Edith’s love and then not properly mourning him after his death may have well tipped her over the edge. Which is not to say that her actions were right, but that the proper context for those actions at least allows us to frame them properly. The love that pours from Edith towards the man who asserts himself to be Patrick Crawley is almost palpable, and her desire for her family to recognize and welcome him close to heartbreaking. Though Edith has gone through a marvelous development, she still mostly goes unnoticed. Every other character has one person who supports them (Lord and Lady Crawley have each other, Matthew has women coming out of his ears, Sybil has Branson, Mary has Mr Carson, Mr Bates and Anna have each other, as do O’Brien and Thomas, etc.), but all Edith has – in the end – is Edith. She has to be her number one supporter, because no one else will ever think to cheer her on. So when her first love falls back into her lap, perhaps more attainable than ever due to Mary’s engagement and his disfigured face, of course she’ll jump at the chance to believe him and fight for him.

That she fails in the end is all the more heartbreaking because Edith, it seems, just can’t catch a break. Her learning how to drive and working on the farm was not applauded in the same way Sybil’s professional turn was, Mary still looks at her with distrust, her work for the recovering officers is still played out mostly in the shadows, and even her own mother doesn’t seem to know quite what to make of Edith – or who to marry her off to, for that matter. Edith so desperately wants to be seen, appreciated, and loved for who she is, and just when she thinks she’s found the person who may do that for her, he is snatched away.

I hope Fellowes has something better for her in store. If he doesn’t, I’ll still appreciate Edith. Just the way she is.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. December 30, 2011 11:45 am

    A little late here, but yes, yes, yes!

    Now I liked Edith during S1, and my appreciation for her deepened during S2, but I marvel at Fellowes’ damned clever writing for her. For someone so overlooked and so doubted and so underestimated, there is a core of wistful resiliency to Edith that fascinates me. I’ve never considered her the “spiteful middle sister”, because even before she and Mary’s claws were unsheathed, Fellowes added little touches to scenes to build up her character even in the shadow of Mary and Sybil.

    It also seems rather meta that even in the media hoopla over the show, the fine acting skills of Laura Carmichael are overlooked in favor of Michelle Dockery’s doe-eyed haughtiness or Jessica Brown Findlay’s sultry impishness.

  2. September 23, 2012 10:51 am

    [“In the first series, Edith doesn’t function as a foil to her older sister Mary, exactly, but she’s not her own person either. She’s the not-as-pretty, not-as-wily, not-as-witty younger sister with a major sibling-rivalry-related axe to grind. She’s wholly responsible for leaking the story about the circumstances of Kemal Pamuk’s death and as such becomes wholly responsible for many of the other troubles she causes Mary (most recently, her ill-advised planned marriage to Richard Carlisle). “]

    Kemal Pamuk set the whole thing into motion by barging into Mary’s bedroom. Mary helped the situation by agreeing to sleep with Pamuk. And both Edith and Thomas inflamed the situation by leaking the news of the Lady Mary/Pamuk affair. FOUR people are responsible, and not just Edith alone.

    • September 23, 2012 8:15 pm

      As you will have seen, I’m not talking about the actual actions of Pamuk and Mary, but rather the leaking of the story and what comes after. Obviously I agree that Pamuk started everything, though I disagree that Mary’s agreement was fully consensual. But anyway, leaking the news was Edith’s deal. There’s honestly no denying that. I love that you’re standing up for her, don’t get me wrong, but there’s no point in trying to exonerate her from her more ostensibly shitty actions. If she hadn’t confirmed the story, it would have died with Pamuk as servant’s gossip. Which is not to say the whole thing was her fault, but well.

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