by Roxanna Bennett
-Spoiler Alert to end of Season 3-
The third season of Downton Abbey is over. We feminist fans shed some tears when Lady Sybil died, cheered when under-butler Thomas Barrow informed Mr. Carson his lifestyle is “not revolting” and learned a lot more about what it means to be a Lady.
We learned that it’s difficult but not impossible to challenge the social norms (Mrs. Crawley helps Edith move from sex work to domestic employment), that older women may be romantically pursued but it’s sometimes a relief to turn down a suitor (Mrs. Patmore is wooed by a player who wants a captive cook, Mrs. Crawley deftly shuts down Dr. Clarkson). We discovered that slut-shaming is an old tradition (Lady Mary, Lady Rose, Edith, pretty much every unmarried woman in Downton gets a taste of this at some point or another) and that sometimes challenging class and station in life works out for the best (Sybil and Tom), huzzah!
Below are 10 Georgian-era life lessons about femininity and ladyhood we learned from the women of Downton Abbey.
It’s imperative that, as a Lady, you spend several hours a day being dressed and undressed for various meals and events and that you sit still as you are groomed, brushed, petted and scolded in front of a mirror that will highlight your every fault and charm. Eating dinner with your family is the high point of your otherwise meaningless existence and heaven help the Lady who is not suitably attired.
Yes, you spent years a trained nurse and were married to a doctor and competently treated patients and understood as much as your late husband about medical procedures. That’s all well and fine, but you’re a widow and a Lady and therefore, shut up and stop with the whining about saving the lives of dying patients with your fancy, think-you-know-better than the Man Doctor ideas.
A chauffeur should never sleep with a Lady, but if he does convince her to marry him, he’ll be reluctantly received as one of the family with all the money and comfort that entails. If a woman, however, sleeps above her station, such as a housemaid sleeping with an enlisted officer who happens to be convalescing in the home of her employer, look forward to a life of shame, hunger and misery. It’s alright for a man to marry up but not for a woman. If you are a Lady you are expected to find a consort within your class, and not make merry with farmhands or – far worse – editors and publishers, who are so gauche as to be inconceivable as marriage material.
A sex worker is the lowest form of life. Serving her in your shop is to invite shame upon yourself, your business and your family. Associating with a sex worker means that you, too, are also a sex worker because prostitution is contagious. Employing a sex worker as anything other than a sex worker is to allow your home or business to become defiled with her dirty ways. Never mind the reasons that she became a sex worker, (because you fired her for sleeping above her station [see #8, Know Your Place] and then she got pregnant and had no way to feed her bairn because you FIRED HER) now she is worse than trash and anyone seen speaking to her is assumed to also be frolicking in the muck of unwed intercourse.
You drink or smoke or wear a dress without sleeves or smile at a strange man or go dancing with a married one or worse, get discovered with a dead dude in your bed after letting him sully your virtue. Let’s face it, your virtue is the only thing you have that makes you worth a dime…I mean damn.
He is lazy and hungry and needs a wife to cook and clean for him. No other reason can possibly exist for a man to be interested in a woman no longer in her golden years, by which of course we mean her teens.
Whether it’s denying the existence of the bastard you bore him, or deciding which medical procedures you need at any time but most especially while you’re pregnant or in labour, men know best. Even if it means that you inconveniently die or more deplorably, become a prostitute to feed your bastard child, men always, forever, know what you need to do with your body and life.
Being an unmarried middle-aged woman is to be a failure. Not only must you eat breakfast at the table every day with the dudes like a chump, but you still have to do whatever your dad says. If you feel you must do something useful, run a charity but not, for heaven’s sake, get all uppity and start writing opinionated editorial columns.
Not only will you be relieved of the burden of you father’s money, which will rightfully be passed to your husband, but you will be shielded from scandal by the virtue of giving your new husband your…well, virtue. You also get to have a maid all for yourself without sharing her with your bitchy sisters and best of all…breakfast in bed, every bloody day, for the rest of your life.
If you were lucky enough to be married to a soldier for a few hours, you are now entitled to widow’s benefits and are set for life! If your husband was a man with a title and income, you now get to live well off the fat of the fortune if you have a son to manage the money for you. Don’t you worry your pretty little head about the money, a man is always alive to take charge of the nasty business for you. And now that your husband is dead, you’re off the chain to say whatever you like. No one will rebuke you, no, they will live in terror of your bon mots, snide asides and backseat scheming.