Downton Abbey Season 4 Episode 3: Two kinds of rape, and the morality of moving on

As Anna and Tom Branson try to recover from their respective ordeals, a suitor arrives at Downton for Lady Mary's hand.

This week at Downton, upstairs we found the Crawley family recovering from their busy weekend of entertaining and moving back into the mundane reality of dealing with the estate’s affairs. And downstairs, harsh realities abound for some, and new opportunities for others.

Perhaps the most consequential new development was Lord Gillingham’s proposal to Lady Mary. Caught up in the fervent throes of residual childhood ardor, Gillingham breathlessly professes his love for the beautiful Crawley homewrecker - er, heiress.

I mean, really - first Lavinia Swire, now poor Miss Mabel Lane Fox. We don’t even need to meet Gillingham’s almost-bride-to-be to know the pain Mary’s inexorable charms will cause her. No pretty strawberry blonde hair, this time. No doe eyes. Miss Fox exists in the abstract only to remind us how irresistible our dear Lady Mary can be.

And as strange as this might sound, I was happy to see Mary reject him.

As I’ve said already, I want Mary to thrive on her own. I want her to take the reins of the estate, seated next to fellow widower Tom Branson, and never look back. This choice was for her, and her alone. Gillingham references the system in which they are both caught up, and true, all aristocratic sense should have driven Mary to accept. But she is not ready to let go of Matthew’s memory. As “refreshed” as she says she feels by Gillingham’s interest, it’s not the right time.

Another character refreshed by love is Mr. Carson. At the conclusion of episode 2, he learned that the woman he had once loved, Alice, loved him too. Though Alice is dead now, Mrs. Hughes notices that the simple knowledge that his affections were shared has changed Mr. Carson. He is happier and a bit more open. I’m still hesitant to hope that someday Mrs. Hughes and Mr. Carson might find love within each other, because their platonic family love is beautiful enough as it is. The warm fuzzies were pretty overwhelming when she gave him a framed photo of Alice to keep on his desk.

Many of the show’s other characters, however, are not so fortunate. Daisy’s attempt to steal Alfred’s affection from Ivy backfires when Alfred begins preparation for an exam that would take him away to London. Lady Edith spends a night with Michael Gregson, only to be caught sneaking into Aunt Rosamund’s house and warned against giving herself up in a gamble for love. And of course, there’s Anna.

At the end of last week’s episode, I wondered how Downton Abbey was going to deal with the concept of rape, or if it would be dealt with at all. I was hopeful that Anna’s rape would not be brushed under the rug as just another melodramatic Downton tragedy, but that Fellowes would explore some contemporary debates about sexual assault in the context of the period.

The verdict is still out on exactly what the show and its characters have to say about the injustice of rape, but this week’s episode alluded to an interesting parallelism - even if it failed to name it outright.

The same night that Anna was raped, Edna slipped Tom Branson a tall glass of whiskey and then slipped into his bed. This, too, is rape. By the standard definition of consent, Tom would have been unable to consent in his inebriated state. It is telling of gender roles of the time - and, to some extent, of today - how the involved characters deal with these different cases of sexual assault.

Anna was violently raped, but the word “rape” was never mentioned. Everyone saw the cuts on her face. Everyone noticed that she was acting strangely. But even Mrs. Hughes, the only person who knows precisely what happened, only referred loosely to the attack and the “evil, violent man” who did it.

How could no one else even suspect that she had been assaulted? If not sexually, then clearly physically? With the collective silence around her, Anna is forced to deal with the trauma alone. In what was certainly the most heartbreaking line of the entire episode, she expressed - of all things - guilt.

“I’m not good enough for him [Mr. Bates], not now. I think that somehow I must have made it happen.”

She spoke of being “soiled,” unworthy. Yet, she still refuses to go to the police. If she is pregnant, she said she will kill herself. The dialogue and cinematography did not pause to dwell on this poignant statement, as shows like this often do to highlight important narrative moments. But what could be more agonizing or telling of Anna’s feelings of loss and the options she feels she has than her statement: “I’ll kill myself”?

Contrary to Anna’s situation, in which she is separated from and lives in fear of her rapist, Tom had the opportunity to confront Edna.

When Tom expressed regret at his flawed decision making, Edna pounced, threatening to sully his reputation if she ends up pregnant and he does not support her and the child. As later became clear in her conversation with sly Mr. Barrow, Edna hopes to blackmail Tom into lifting her up into high society, just as Sybil did for him.

Tom was full of regret. Though lacking Anna’s physical scars, he walked around in a daze just as she did and several people noticed his odd behavior, just as they noticed Anna’s. Just as Mrs. Hughes encouraged Anna to speak to the police, Mary encouraged Tom to find someone he could open up to. He told Mrs. Hughes, who uncovered Edna’s secret and fired her.

Unlike Anna, Tom had the power to do something about his rape. Unlike Anna’s, Tom’s rape story is most likely over. Tom, as a man, was not raised to feel powerless over his sexuality. He was not raised to even consider the option of being raped: to this day, rape in the U.K. is a crime that only men can legally commit. In the 1920s, the concept of male rape would have almost certainly never even been considered by these characters. Instead, Tom dealt with his “regret” by exerting his power. Anna’s story will continue until someone reaches out to help her. Even then, it will affect her forever.

I am not asserting that Tom’s exercise of power over Edna was uncalled-for or in poor taste. Surely, Edna deserved to be fired (again). But it is interesting to consider the different ways these two characters are forced - by convention and gender roles that are, to a large extent, still prevalent today - to deal with rape.

Moving forward I hope that someone (anyone) presses Anna to report Mr. Green. Mrs. Hughes’ respect for Anna’s wishes by deflecting Mr. Bates’ questions cannot last forever. Also, Mr. Bates will not quietly let his marriage fail, nor will he let Anna continue to suffer in silence. As painful as it will be to watch, I believe he will grow desperate and pressure her until she cracks.

Then comes the problem of retribution. When Mrs. Hughes says it is breaking Mr. Bates’ heart not knowing what’s wrong, Anna responds, “better a broken heart than a broken neck.”

But is it?

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