Downton Abbey – Why Lady Edith is the true Heroine of the Series

This Sunday marked the final episode of Downton Abbey. I’m not ashamed to admit that I bawled through most of this episode even though I had seen it already (I bought the DVD weeks ago). Oh, I have had my issues with this series over the years, the almost too fast pace, the arrests of both Anna and Mr. Bates, Mary’s romantical problems (I was rooting for Charles Blake), the waste of Tom Branson’s character in the last two series, and Barrow’s evil schemes.  But who would have thought when this series began six years ago that Lady Edith Crawley would emerge as the show’s true heroine, the underdog who finally triumphs?

If you asked most viewers, they would probably say that Lady Mary was the main heroine of the series. She certainly is Julian Fellowes favorite character.  Don’t get me wrong, I can see why so many people love Lady Mary.  All her life she has been considered the most beautiful, the most promising, the achiever, and the strongest one.  Lady Mary is one of those women who go sailing serenely through life like stately ocean liner, they may hit rough waters, but life will always turn out all right for them. Sure, Mary endures tragedy, but Mary is also wealthy, chic, and constantly pursued by scores of handsome suitors. Mary has also proven herself to have been throughout Downton Abbey to be at times an unremittent snob, imperious, cruel, vindictive, and lacking in compassion and cold.  Let’s face it while, we all like to pretend that we are Lady Mary, most of us have felt like Lady Edith at some point in our lives. 

The Lady Edith Crawley viewers were introduced to in series one was petulant, unpleasant and unlikeable.  Sandwiched between Lady Mary, an imperious beauty and Lady Sybil, the youngest, was a rebellious beauty who was more impulsive and socially adept than the others. As the middle sister, Edith was the awkward child, often said to be the "forgotten" one or “poor, old Edith.” She wasn’t as pretty or witty as Mary and she was less daring and passionate than Sybil.  And it was clear that while Lord Grantham favored Mary, Cora favored Sybil, leaving Edith out in the cold. Consider this lovely little exchange early on between Robert and Cora.

Robert: “Poor old Edith. We never seem to talk about her.”
Cora: “I’m afraid Edith will be the one taking care of us in our old age.”
Robert: “Oh, what a ghastly prospect!”

Basically, Lady Edith was Downton Abbey’s Jan Brady. Instead of ‘Marcia, Marcia, Marcia,’ Edith had to listen to ‘Mary, Mary, Mary,’ all the time. It’s a wonder that Edith didn’t smother Mary in her sleep. Edith seemed so pathetic and unappealing that SNL referred to her in their parody as ‘the other one,’ and on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, she was played by a man. For the longest time it seemed as if Julian Fellowes had it out for poor Edith.  You can read the list of every miserable thing that has happened to Edith here on Vulture, but suffice to say, she’s had more than her share of heartbreak but as Cora once told her, whatever doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger and that’s certainly true with Edith. The Edith of the first series would never have dared to confront her sister as she did in the final season.  Every time she’s been knocked down, and there have been plenty, she manages to pick herself up and dust herself off, because like the song says, she’s got “High Hopes.”

From the beginning, her rivalry with Mary has dominated the series.  During the first series, it seemed that everything Mary had, Edith wanted, whether it was Matthew or even poor Sir Anthony Strallen (Mary later ruined things between the two by insinuating that Edith wasn’t serious about him). It’s no wonder that Edith maliciously revealed her sister’s murderous tryst with Kemal Pamuk to the Turkish Embassy. But even that was forgivable to a certain extent since it was Mary’s actions that set Edith off on her quest for revenge, insulting Edith behind her back not knowing that Edith had overheard.

By the second series, Edith slowly began to change, throwing herself into the war effort.  She learned to drive a car and wound up managing non-medical patient care when Downton became a convalescent home for officers.  The viewers slowly began to see that Edith had a genuinely good heart and an amiable personality.  Yes, Edith still had bad luck with men, falling for a married farmer and a con-artist, but at least her heart was still open to the possibility of finding love.  But it was getting jilted at the altar by Sir Anthony that was the best thing that ever happened to Edith. After some tough love by the Dowager Countess (“You’re a woman with a brain and reasonable ability. Stop whining and find something to do!”), Edith dried her tears, pulled herself up by her dainties and got on with it. A single letter to the Times of London regarding votes for women led to an offer of a column in the Sketch newspaper. Soon Edith began to make a life for herself away from Downton, hobnobbing with the Bohemian set in London. 

And finally she met a man who pursued her instead of the other way around. Michael Gregson was her boss and a married man, but the two fell in love. After suffering so much loss, including the death of her sister, Edith learned to carpe diem. She didn’t wait for Michael to get his divorce before spending the night in his arms. It was a risk that she was willing to take.  And when Edith found herself in the family way she chose not to have an abortion.  And though it could be considered selfish, Edith found herself unable to give up her daughter Marigold to strangers. It was a huge risk not only to bring her to Downton to have the Drewes raise her, but to bring her to live at the Abbey under the guise of being the family ward.  After Gregson’s death, Edith managed to pull herself together, throwing herself into dealing with his media empire. Even Lord Grantham, who had been opposed to Edith’s writing initially, has come to admire her resilience over the course of the series. He was even willing to accept Marigold as his grandchild and to love her along with George and Sybbie.

This final season of Downton feels as if Lord Fellowes has listened to Edith’s fans and scripted a happy ending. Although I loved her not only ending up with a kind and loving man but also outranking her family, for me it was enough that Edith finally confronted her sister over the terrible way she’s been treated over the years.  Mary telling Bertie the truth about Marigold was just the latest in a long series of thinly veiled insults and utter contempt. After Sybil’s death, Edith reached out an olive branch to Mary and was flatly rebuffed.  Watching Edith storm out of the Abbey was extremely satisfying. And when she came back for Mary’s wedding, it was after realizing that in the end, when everyone is gone she and Mary are going to be the only ones who will remember the way things used to be.  It was lovely to see Edith make plans for her future, moving to London, sending Marigold to a proper school. She would have been happy, even if Bertie hadn’t come crawling back thanks to Mary. This is Edith is a far cry from the young woman in series three who practically brow-beat Sir Anthony into marrying her because she didn’t want to be the only Crawley that was single.  And she’s managed to forge strong relationships with both of her brothers-in-law, Tom and Henry (who calls her Edie!).

While Edith has moved beyond Downton, Lady Mary has ended up exactly where she was at the beginning of the series.  Yes, she’s known tragedy and come into her own as she holds the reins of Downton for George, but her marriage to Henry is no different than her marriage to Matthew. You could argue that Downton is actually Mary’s true love, not Matthew or Henry. We saw that in the first series when Mary angrily railed against the entailment that kept her from inheriting. She was willing to marry a man she didn’t love for Downton.  And while she and Matthew were truly in love, the fact that he was the heir didn’t hurt. And didn’t it hurt in series two to know that Lavinia Swire would be the Countess of Grantham while Mary had to settle for Sir Richard and a bought estate! After rejecting suitors such as Tony Gillingham and Charles Blake, men who had estates of their own that would need to be managed, Mary has married a former race-car driver who is quite content to live on his wife’s family estate. I imagine as the years pass, Lady Mary’s focus will be increasingly on preserving Downton for George. Henry will be bored without the rush of racecar driving, and start drinking heavily. When he’ll spend most of his time in London, visiting his mistress, leaving Tom to do the bulk of the work at the car dealership.

In the end, Edith has proven to be the strongest of the three Crawley sisters, the one who has truly changed and evolved over the series, the one most capable of taking care of herself no matter what the situation.  Edith started out the series as the archetype of the waif, the damsel in distress, who bends with the wind.  But instead, she amazed everyone by turningto have a tremendous strength of will. In the end, She's become a thoroughly modern woman of the 20th century. 


CharmedLassie said…
Adored this analysis, thank you.

For at least four years I wanted to give Edith a hug and it was lovely that her happy ending dominated the final episodes of Downton.
Unknown said…
Lady Edith has long been my favorite character on the show, so I was quite excited to read your analysis. Edith has grown tremendously throughout the course of the show.

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