Femininity in Film: Downton Abbey – Lady Edith

Yes, I am one of those crazies that obsesses over Downton Abbey. And yes, I am very, very upset about the events of the third season. But I don’t want to talk about that. What I do want to talk about are the women of Downton. Downton Abbey has a huge cast, so there are a lot of female characters to take a look at – too many for a post this size. So I’m going to focus on Lady Edith for today.

Lady Edith is very different from her sisters. Being the Downton nerd that I am, I bought Downton Abbey: The Complete Scripts Season One and read all of them despite having watched the first season twice already. The real treasure here was the commentary by writer/creator Julian Fellowes. Pretty early in the pilot script, Fellowes talks about his intentionality behind making each sister different from the other two. He wanted each represent, in some way, the range of attitudes of aristocratic women during that time.

Lady Edith is on one end of the scale trying to fit the mold of aristocracy at every turn (at least she begins on that end – by the finale of season three, she’s seriously considering a very unconventional and, for the period, improper affair with her editor). Meanwhile, Lady Sybil represents the other end fighting for women’s rights and defying authority. Lady Mary falls somewhere in between holding tight to her aristocratic prejudices but willing to do things differently if she thinks it right. But I’ll talk about Mary and Sybil in later posts.

Lady Edith… poor, poor Edith. I think we can assume from the way her parents treat her and talk about her on the show – though they never mean any harm, surely – that even growing up, Edith lacked their affirmation. This is the irony of her character: even though she’s the only one of the three daughters doing her parents’ perfect bidding in the beginning, she’s also the only one who never gets credit, who’s always doubted and made fun of, who always gets the shaft.

Her unfulfilled craving for familial affection plays out in her romantic choices – whether it’s the married farmer tenant, old crippled Sir Anthony, or her married editor. She deserves better than any of them (although Sir Anthony was a nice chap, and despite his age, I think she truly cared for him and he for her), but she’s willing to settle because they give her what her family never has.

Whether we admit it or not, I think a lot of us can see a piece of ourselves in Lady Edith. It’s the piece that wants so badly to please people, to make people like us, to fit into a mold that we think others want us to fit. It’s the piece that sometimes accepts a counterfeit version of love because, at least for the moment, it feels better than the neglect we feel elsewhere.

Listen, ladies. Be better than Lady Edith. Don’t twist yourself into someone else’s vision of perfect. Do what’s right, not what’s pleasing. Don’t settle. You deserve better.