Femininity in Film: Downton Abbey – Lady Sybil

**Spoiler Alert: If you have not watched the latest season of Downton Abbey, you probably don’t want to read this.

One of my favorite non-Maggie Smith lines from Downton Abbey (because let’s face it – Maggie Smith gets all the best ones and makes them even better with her delivery) comes from Lady Mary after the heartbreaking death of Lady Sybil. It’s the beginning of an exchange between Mary and Edith about their younger sister, and I think it beautifully captures what makes Sybil such a lovely character:

“She was the only person living who always thought you and I were such nice people.”

Now, we all remember the first season, how Edith reveals Mary’s scandalous improprieties to the Turkish Ambassador and how Mary retaliates by ruining Edith’s chances with Sir Anthony. They’re pretty awful to each other. And that’s what makes Mary’s statement about Sybil so poignant. No matter how rotten Mary and Edith act, Sybil always believes the best about them.

An argument could be made, I suppose, that Sybil is actually flawed in this way – that she is either willfully ignorant of her sisters’ faults or too naive to recognize them. But I think that’s a terribly sad and cynical way to read her character. I don’t believe Sybil is naive at all, willfully or no. At least not when it comes to her sisters.

Sybil recognizes an underlying goodness in each of her sisters. She doesn’t boil Mary and Edith down to this bad choice or that mean remark. It’s not that Sybil doesn’t see their faults, but that she sees beyond them. She loves her sisters, and indeed everyone she meets, unconditionally.

Oddly enough, it’s this kind of radical love that makes Sybil such a progressive.

She falls in love with the family chauffeur and doesn’t let class prejudice and convention stop her from marrying him. Perhaps even more amazingly, she manages to make peace with her snobbish family over the entire matter – they may not have been thrilled by the idea, but in the end, they don’t disown Sybil and even accept Tom into the family.

She helps Gwen, a housemaid, get a job as a secretary – not just with a good reference, but by loaning her clothes, submitting applications on her behalf, and personally driving her to an interview.

Thomas, the servant we love to hate, says about her:

“In my life I can tell you not many have been kind to me. She was one of the few.”

Again, we might be tempted to think that Sybil’s kindness toward the servants is borne of a naivete, as if she doesn’t know the rules of her class system or isn’t aware of the implications of her behavior. But we see when she argues with her father about marrying Tom that she’s painfully aware of those things. She sees the flaws in the system and deliberately defies them – and her weapon of choice is love. Not the fluffy feel-good kind of love, but the active, shirt-off-my-back kind.

I think that’s what makes Sybil a female character worth imitating.