For all its flaws, I love Downton Abbey.
The costumes and locale are sumptuous. The acting is strong enough to make even the most obviously contrived plot reversals seem nearly plausible. (Let us pause in remembrance of the wealthy, forgiving, conveniently flu-stricken Lavinia Swire.) It’s worth watching every week just for the mordant charm Maggie Smith gives the Dowager Countess’ every disapproving glance and trenchant aside.
Unfortunately, there is one ongoing storyline about which I am increasingly ambivalent.
[Here is my polite warning that plot developments in recent episodes will be discussed hereafter. I wish the Internet had done me the same courtesy when I innocently Googled “Dan Stevens” two seasons ago.]
Of all the main characters, there is no sack sadder than poor Lady Edith. Even laughingstock footman Molesley has been granted a portion of dignity recently, which thus far remains untrampled. But after a precious few episodes last season when the Crawleys’ middle daughter looked like she might enjoy a new life after being jilted at the altar, briefly becoming a glamorous woman about London with a promising journalism career, the writers yanked one of the Abbey’s elegant Persian rugs out from under her yet again. One night of passion with handsome, married newspaper magnate Michael Gregson, and miserable Edith gets knocked up, only to have her paramour disappear somewhere in Weimar Germany.
(Come to think of it, didn’t he sign management of his assets over to her that same night? Shouldn’t she look into that?)
With the help of a sympathetic aunt, Edith convinced her family she was dying to brush up on her French (see above re: nearly plausible plotlines) and took to the Continent to deliver the baby in secret. Despite finding a wealthy and presumably loving family to adopt her daughter, the pain of separation eventually became too great, and she went back to Europe to retrieve her.
It was at this point last season when the needle on the phonograph began to go wonkus for me.
Despite characters being anachronistically progressive when it suits modern viewing sensibilities (almost everyone took it in surprising stride when scheming butler Thomas was outed as gay), it would be ridiculous to expect contemporary mores about adoption to apply to a woman with Edith’s social constraints. The mere fact of her compromised virginity would be disgrace enough, to say nothing of a pregnancy and secret adoption. The straits she was in were dire indeed, and as one of the main characters it only makes sense that it would be her struggles we see.
But as an adoptive parent myself, and one who has experienced the pain of an adoption falling through late in the process, my thoughts immediately turned to the family that had loved the baby and lost her. There was scarcely a mention that Edith’s change of heart would wreak havoc in theirs. Perhaps they were a minor and easily-discarded plot point for most viewers, but my thoughts kept going back to them.
This season sees Edith’s solution to the problem of separation, which was to place her daughter with yet another adoptive family, this time the estate’s friendly pig farmer and his wife. Leaving aside how precarious this arrangement would be for her, it at least affords her the opportunity to watch her now toddler daughter grow up. But however much she loves the girl she cannot raise, it doesn’t change the reality that another family is now raising her as their own, and loving her just the same.
After the pig farmer (no dummy) susses out that the child’s biological mother is Edith and not some unnamed unfortunate, he colludes with her to allow the two to spend more time together, suggesting that she “take an interest” in the girl and even making her godmother. Yet as compassionate as that may be to Edith, it is increasingly difficult for the woman who is mothering the little girl. While, to the show’s credit, we are at least allowed to see the mounting frustration of the farmer’s wife as Edith’s interest in her adopted daughter steadily increases, neither the farmer himself nor Edith seems in any way attentive to the damage they are doing.
I’ve had a soft spot for Lady Edith for the past few seasons, ever since it became obvious that the writers were going to foist every ridiculously humiliating travail on her that they could. (Think back to the second season, and that ludicrous episode featuring a mysteriously disfigured man who may or may not have been an inheritance-grabbing cousin. Or better yet, don’t.) Nothing would make me happier than for her to wind up with Gregson’s millions, move to London, and find a man every bit as attractive as Laura Carmichael really is when they’re not styling her to look dumpy. I fear things don’t turn out so rosily for her this season, but I’d choose that for her if I could.
But no matter how happy I’d like to see her, I also don’t want to see the little girl’s adopted parents in pain. When the farmer’s wife objected that the child already had a godmother, I could feel her frustration and anxiety. Her love for her daughter has weight, too, and the show owes it to her character to honor it.