Downton Abbey Season 4, Episode 6: A skill that every woman must learn.

As the current season is unfolding, the characters of Downton show a new light with the women all the while growing stronger.

Mrs. Hughes is everyone’s savior. She is everyone’s mother, everyone’s friend, everyone’s confidante. As Downton Abbey’s guiding light, she provides both a sensible moral compass and a gentle, loving touch of friendship for characters in need. 

But she’s not just a bastion of traditional Victorian womanhood and matriarchal strength. She also deals out her fair share of iron-handed discipline, gives a concise but stinging tongue-lashing here and there (when necessary) and solves problems in a way only a woman weathered by decades of life in the trenches of womanhood can.

Throughout Downton Abbey’s fourth season, Elsie Hughes has grown to stand out as one of Fellowes’ most lovable and admirable characters. Between dealing tactfully with the fallout of Anna’s rape, handling Edna’s attempted blackmail and assault on Tom, helping Mr. Carson come to realize his own lovableness, and now, overseeing Ivy and Daisy’s coming of age and falling in love, Mrs. Hughes has fully emerged this season as an intelligent, resourceful, compassionate and - above all - strong woman.

To say that she has fully emerged is not to say that Mrs. Hughes hasn’t shown estimable strength of character in the past. She accepted Thomas for who he was and stood up for him when he came out to her. She showed initiative and compassion for both Ethel and Mr. Carson’s friend Charles when they faced difficulties.

“You can be quite the plotter when you want to be,” Mr. Carson says, when Mrs. Hughes comes up with a plan to keep Alfred from stirring up emotions among the kitchen maids.

“It’s a skill all women must learn,” she says.

Indeed, in keeping with the “all about the ladies” theme that has so pleased me throughout this season, this week Mrs. Hughes and the other women of Downton demonstrated several skills that all women must learn.

Don’t let anyone underestimate you.

At the start of this episode, Mary is still none too pleased with the presence of Charles Blake, the dashing (they’re always dashing, aren’t they?) government administrator who has come to study Downton’s sustainability for an economic report. 

Thoroughly invested as she is in the well-being of her estate, Mary is enthusiastic about the arrival of a drove of pigs at Downton, that the family hopes to raise, with the help of a “highly recommended” pig man.

When Charles and Mary walk down to the see the pigs after they’ve arrived, Charles notices that the pigs have knocked over their water trough and are dehydrated. In a rare moment of farce, the pair - all decked out in their fabulous evening wear - go schlepping through the mud to bring the pigs water. 

After a coy mud fight ensues, Mary lets out a laugh so uncharacteristic, it’s almost unbelievable. But herein lies proof of Mary’s depth. She is not simply the bratty, cold-hearted princess she sometimes seems to be. She can have fun. She does have layers. She is passionate about her beliefs - passionate enough to do whatever it takes to save those darn pigs.

This is not just proof for the audience; Mary is trying to prove something to Charles Blake. Whether it’s intentional or inadvertent, I’m unsure. He sees her as a privileged daughter of the British aristocracy who cares nothing for the economy or other people, only for the maintenance of her affluent way of life. I know many fans of the show who see her that way, too. 

But just as Tom, Matthew and Isobel’s presence has influenced Robert, it has influenced his daughter. She understands what’s at stake, and she finally understands that things must change. She is determined to be a part of the solution, and she shows that to Charles in this episode. When the two return to the Abbey in the early morning, the camera lingers on disheveled Mary Crawley, scrambling eggs in the kitchen. For just a moment, we can imagine her in a different life - a humbler, domestic life. There is more to this woman than meets the eye, and she will not be underestimated.

Make your own decisions.

When Robert leaves for America, he leaves Cousin Rose “in charge of fun,” and fun she has, traveling to London and meeting again with black bandleader Jack Ross. She doesn’t care what her family or others think - she wants to live in the moment, and feels free to decide for herself who she should or should not be spending her time with. 

Based on next week’s preview, it seems the family will soon discover her secret. It remains to be seen if Rose will continue to act on her independent nature. I hope she does.

Given that Downton is tackling rape and race in this season, and has tackled sexual orientation, class and sexism in the past, it’s not too surprising to see Edith considering an abortion. Despite the fact that she decides not to go through with it, I think Fellowes handled her decision with nuance and candor.

Edith “can’t see over the top of this.” If Gregson doesn’t come back, Edith doesn’t want to bring shame on her family by raising a bastard child.

In her discussion with Rosamund, it is clear that Edith has deeply considered her options.

“I am killing the wanted child of a man I’m in love with, and you ask me, ‘Have you thought about it?” 

The reason behind her decision lies in the complicated social politics of the British aristocracy. Of course, she would love to have Michael Gregson’s child. It would be a consummation of their love affair and a symbol of their commitment to one another. But a having a child out of wedlock is just not something a woman of her class does. She fears it would render her an outcast, an unfortunate woman whom “no one talks about.” Initially, she would rather terminate the pregnancy than risk that shame.

Lucky for her, her privileged position allows her a choice. It’s important to remember that many women - I’d argue most women - who seek abortions do not have a choice. They do not have the money to feed, clothe or care for a child. They already have too many children. They live in a situation where having another child would be unsafe or unwise. Their body will turn against them, or has in the past. Their choice is often out of necessity. Edith’s choice is emotional. And that’s okay, too.

If Edith were to have a child, it would undoubtedly be cared for, loved and financially set for life. The Crawleys are not in the habit of abandoning their daughters. Edith doesn’t want to have a baby because she fears for her reputation, and for the stigma that befall on her child. And that’s fine. As exemplified by Rosamund’s nonjudgmental support, it’s not up to anyone else decide what is a good or bad reason for her decision. Through her exigent pain and uncertainty, Edith weights (and has every right to weigh) options that she believes are equally fraught.

Ultimately, she says stands up in the doctor’s office and says “this is a mistake.” She walks out and packs to return to Downton. Though Rosamund seems soberly pleased with Edith’s decision, and is “sure there’s a way forward,” Edith herself still seems uncertain. But she has made the decision based on what is best for her.

I’m sure many out there are accusing Fellowes of touting a “pro-life” message, especially with that line about “killing the child,” and given the use of the word “mistake.” And while we must acknowledge the significance of the fact that Edith has more wiggle room than many women who seek abortions, I rather think Edith’s reversal underscores the complicated nature of the decisions that many women face. 

A woman in Edith’s position, living in post-Edwardian Britain would have had complicated thoughts about her decision. She may very well have thought in terms of “killing” and “mistakes,” because the cultural discourse had not yet told women that they have a right to choose. I say kudos once again to Fellowes for his multi-hued handling of a complicated issue.

Stand up for other women.

Nowhere was this skill demonstrated more than when - in a scene that had me bouncing up and down on the couch and shouting “Yes! Yes! YES!” - Mrs. Hughes confronted Mr. Green. In addition to shaming the rapist for his actions and ensuring that the blame was placed squarely on his angular, slithering shoulders, she warned him to keep his head down if he values his life - effectively upholding the promise she made to Anna that she would make sure Bates does not find out who raped her, for fear of his retribution and its potentially dire consequences.

Also, arguably, standing up for the their friends was what Mrs. Hughes and Mrs. Patmore were doing when they “plotted” to keep Alfred away from Downton. Recognizing that the presence of the gangly chef-in-training would only hurt poor Daisy and cause strife in the kitchen, they sought to protect the feelings of their young apprentice. 

Mary stood up for Anna to Robert, convincing him to allow Mr. Bates to remain at Downton and to bring Thomas to America instead. Mrs. Hughes defended this decision to Mr. Carson. Together, the women of Downton are handling Anna’s situation, all the while supporting her as she deals with the pain of it. If these two were characters in a present-day show, they’d probably be gladiators.

Rosamund stood up for Edith, and vows to continue to support her despite her misgivings about the whole situation. That’s what the women in this family do: they support one another.

For the women of Downton, camaraderie and mutual support is imperative. In the downstairs world, where women are expected to acquiesce not only to their employers, but to their fellow servants, they must stand up for one another to keep themselves afloat. In the upstairs world, where privilege abounds but women have far less than men, and are viewed as weaker of mind, body and spirit, the women must stand up for one another to cultivate a collective voice and work toward equal rights. After all, this is the 1920s. 

For the women of today, the fight continues. We’ve made leaps and bounds since the 1920s, but many women are still marginalized in myriad ways. Many women are still underestimated in their field of work or in their field of passion. Many women still face the secretiveness of Edith’s abortion, their decisions governed not by what they want, but what society expects of them. To keep moving forward we all must follow the example of the ladies of Downton: be strong, be smart, and always stand up for one another. 

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