The leading ladies of Downton have almost caught up with Hugh Grant and Andie MacDowell. Sybil, Mary, and Anna (yes, she’s a shadow sister) are all married. Edith got halfway married. And now Sybil is buried. So that makes three and a half plus one. One wonders of course whether the other half will be the forthcoming happy ending of season three, but since there’s only a little over a week to wait we can be patient. For the moment, Lady Edith remains unmarried and on the verge of turning into a career girl. For once, the historical reference for this plot line is both subtle and resonant. If Ernest Hemingway’s lost generation was mostly men, the other half of the sun that also rises was the generation of women who came of age with them. Back in Lady E’s day, poet and novelist Vera Brittain helpfully coined the term “superfluous woman” for all the single ladies left unwed by the war. Just a few years ago, Virginia Nicholson wrote a book titled Singled Out: How Two Million Women Survived without Men after the First World War. If Edith represents the high end of the trend—an educated woman of means who becomes (just guessing here) a crusading journalist—then kitchen maids Daisy and Ivy (btw: what’s up with the plant names?) represent the low—service workers who scrabble over the footmen. It’s a pity the scriptwriters didn’t think to come up with the third option: emigration. If we usually think of first world men importing third world women as picture brides, apparently British women were encouraged to take advantage of their vast imperial holdings and set out for India to husband hunt. Hmmm…a Downton Abbey: Empire Edition has real possibilities.
For now though, Edith remains tethered to the island. Her travails might be historically accurate but they are also notably of the moment. It’s been hard not to notice the full slate of “sex-marriage-mommy” magazine pieces that have made a big splash in the past year or two. If the lack of intellectual coherence in the genre that ranges from “Marry Him!” to “The End of Men” has made Pamela Erens in the L.A. Review of Books ask whether The Atlantic is making us stupid, its salience reminds us why Downton has done so well. As a group, its ladies and their domestics confront the modern girl’s every trial, tragedy and tribulation. As this post’s title suggests, most of these are by now resolved. Only Lady E’s fate remains to be seen. If one suspects—due to relentless conditioning over three seasons—that it will be a happy one, a word of caution. While Erens main point is that the recent high profile writings on the state of modern womanhood lack a crucial historical sense of feminism, one of the kickers in the piece is the news on how outnumbered women writers are at serious magazines and journals. So let’s cheer on Edith and her newspaper column. The world could use another woman writing.