Downton Abbey: Season One, Episode Three

“You can change your life if you want to. Sometimes you have to be hard on yourself; but, you can change it completely.”

Life is moving on at Downton. As it is hunting season, my guess is that we are now in November, 1912 or roughly seven months after the sinking of the Titanic. Both upstairs and downstairs have adjusted to the idea of Matthew as heir and the simple business of day to day life is happening. For several of our friends, day to day does not mean sitting still. The theme of this episode is all about making changes to one’s life in a world that resists change at all costs.

The first example we have is Gwen and her typewriter. The daughter of a farmhand, she has raised herself up to become a housemaid in a grand estate. Although this is already a huge step forward for her, she is not satisfied and is studying to become a secretary through correspondence. It is difficult to exaggerate how odd this would have seemed to the others downstairs. Her path would normally have been to keep working in the house, eventually becoming either a lady’s maid or a housekeeper. Instead, this bright, ambitious young woman wants to continue to rise in the world and not spend her life waiting on other people.

It is the older people in Gwen’s life who don’t understand why she is doing all this. Her parents can’t know until she has another job because they would not support her decision. Carson and Mrs. Hughes, both of whom have spent years in their jobs and sacrificed a great deal to be in service, can’t understand why any young girl would make such a choice.

The conversation at the dinner table about what Gwen wants is revealing on several levels. First of all, it is clear that the people upstairs view their servants almost paternally-- they know better than the servants themselves what is best for them. Lady Violet is genuinely puzzled by Gwen’s actions and can’t imagine anyone wanting to leave such a “large and comfortable house.” Of course, Lady Violet has no idea how hard the housemaids work every day and is seeing the situation through her own eyes. Secondly, Pamuk is genuinely puzzled about why the table is discussing a servant; they are interchangeable beings. Yet, Cora’s point is that she wants the people who live and work in the house to be happy. Lovely to say, but there are quite a few unhappy people under that roof.

It is the younger generation who supports Gwen, especially Sybil and Anna. Sybil is simply lovely with the way she helps Gwen find an open position, but I’ve always liked the way Anna comes to her defense. Anna is not like Gwen, content to stay in service and live her quiet life; yet, she doesn’t hesitate to support her friend’s decision. Nor does Bates, who is caring yet firm.

Bates knows what he is talking about as he is trying to improve as well. He buys a limp corrector hoping to lose his cane once and for all. The result is brutal. This does give us a chance to see how everyone’s attitudes towards Bates have changed, especially Mrs. Hughes. Very maternal with the younger staff, her relationship with Bates is more like a sister.

Upstairs, people are also trying to change their lives. Edith has decided to set her cap for Matthew as Mary is obviously not interested. Not as obviously beautiful as her sisters, one gets the impression that Edith has spent her life trying, in vain, to come out from behind her elder sister’s shadow in a world where beauty in a woman is prized much more highly than brains (in which competition, Edith would win hands down). In love with Patrick, she had to watch him become engaged to Mary. Now, she is going after another young man whom the family would much prefer Mary marry. Even worse, Matthew doesn’t have the slightest interest in her; in fact, it is becoming clear that he is smitten with Mary.

Mary, however, has become smitten with the “gorgeous Turk,” Kemal Pamuk. It is easy to understand why. Mary’s life is filled with men like Evelyn, nice enough and charming enough, but exactly the same type of man as her father and, most likely, every other man Mary has ever had contact with. In swans this handsome, foreign, exciting man who seduces her. In keeping with the times, I’m sure the only experience Mary has had with sex until this point is a chaste kiss or two behind the potted palms in a conservatory. No fool, she understands that her virginity is one of the only things she has going for her. But, like so many women before her, she gets caught up in the moment and sleeps with him. Only to have the wretched man die in her bed.

I love the fact that Mary goes to Anna, arguably her best friend, for help. Anna, whom we’ve just seen support Gwen so beautifully, is shocked but doesn’t judge. In fact, it is she who figures out what must be done and to whom they must go for help. I’ve always been proud of Mary that she tells her mother the truth. It must have been so tempting to lie and accuse a dead man of rape, but she doesn’t. She stands up and faces the decision she has made, thereby enduring her mother’s shame and disappointment.

Similarly to going to Anna, Mary confides in Carson, not anyone in her family. Carson obviously adores her (“Even a butler has his favorites, m’lady.”) and is precisely what Mary needs at that moment, unconditional love and the reassurance that everything will turn out in the end.

Bits and Bobs:

— The York and Ainsty in a Hunt Club, based in (surprise, surprise) York. The members would all travel to the various properties in the area to hunt; in this case, Downton.

— Hunting is still extremely controversial in England. It has been banned since 2004 (2002 in Scotland), but it is still practiced. As I read in an English paper at the time of the ban, there is no law against wearing colours, there is no law against riding horses and there is no law against packs of dogs accompanying a riding party. How, exactly, do lawmakers expect this law to be enforced?

— I love the colors associated with the hunt. The red coats (or pinks) look smashing and the breeches were often that dark green that is now called Hunter Green (my favorite color).

— Mary is still riding side saddle.

— “Home is the hunter, home from the hill” is a popular misquote from one of the great Robert Louis Stevenson poems of all time, Requiem. “Home is the sailor, home from the sea/And the hunter home from the hill.”

— Princess Aurora, as those of us who watch Once Upon a Time know, is the main character from Sleeping Beauty.

Well Said:

Mary: “He’ll know what why you’re asking him.”
Cora: “I can’t think what you mean. His mother’s a friend of mine. She’ll be pleased at the idea.”
Mary: “Not very pleased. She’s dead.”

Mary: “Is the family an old one?”
Lady Violet: “Older than yours, I imagine.”
Robert: “Old enough.”
Cora: “And there’s plenty of money.”
Lady Violet: “Really?”
Robert: “Mama, you’ve already looked him up in the stud books and made enquiries about the fortune. Don’t pretend otherwise. Are you afraid someone will think you’re American is you speak openly?”
Lady Violet: “I doubt it will come to that.”

Anna: “She wants to keep it private, not secret. There’s a difference.”

Edith: “Don’t you read the papers?”
Mary: “I’m too busy living a life.”

Bates: “I saw this advertisement for a limp corrector.”
Man in Shop: “Yes.”
Bates: “What does it do exactly?”
Man in Shop: “It corrects limps.”

Matthew: “When it comes to Cousin Mary, she is quite capable of doing her own flinging, I assure you.”

Mary: “You and my parents have something in common.”
Pamuk: “Oh?”
Mary: “You believe I’m much more of a rebel than I am.”

Robert: “We must have a care for feminine sensibilities. They are finer and more fragile than our own.”
The ultimate ironic statement. If he only knew what three of these fragile sensibilities were up to just a few hours ago.

Lady Violet: “Of course, it would happen to a foreigner. It’s typical.”
Mary: “Don’t be ridiculous.”
Lady Violet: “I’m not being ridiculous. No Englishman would dream of dying in someone else’s house. Especially someone they didn’t even know.”

Bates: “I promise that I will never again try to cure myself. I will spend my life happily as the butt of others’ jokes and I will never mind them.”
Mrs. Hughes: “We all carry scars, Mr. Bates, inside or out. You’re no different to the rest of us.”

ChrisB is a freelance writer who spends more time than she ought in front of a television screen or with a book in her hand.

5 comments:

Billie Doux said...

I really enjoyed this one. Hey, so far, I've enjoyed them all. I'm growing very fond of certain characters -- Bates, Anna, Mrs. Hughes, Sybil -- and while I didn't like Mary at all at first, I rather like her courage now.

In that last paragraph before the bits section, did you mean Carson, not Bates?

ChrisB said...

I did! Another senior moment. Thanks for the catch. All corrected now.

:-)

Billie Doux said...

Terrific review, Chris. I'm so glad you're reviewing this show because I was putting off trying it, and now you've got me watching it.

I'm having those senior moments a bit too often myself. :)

sunbunny said...

I liked how this episode really started to define our characters, particularly Anna, and Sybil, both of whom were pleasant but a bit bland before this. Now we know how strong Anna can be and how kind (and progressive) Sybil is.

Like you, Billie, I didn't like Mary at first, but her courage in a) getting her mother and b) not crying rape made me like her.

PS. Totally agree with Billie. I'd been putting off watching this show for ages. No longer! Thanks, ChrisB. Great review!

JimGfromWI said...

This show is probably my 2nd favorite at the moment (behind The Walking Dead) and now we're really starting to get to know everyone. Mr. Bates is my favorite, partially because I resemble him, quite a bit, with some of my medical issues. I do like Carson quite a bit as well. And no one can beat Lady Violet.