Last winter, our hearts wept as Lord Grantham’s sweetly rebellious youngest daughter, Lady Sybil Branson, died in childbirth. Her passing left behind a grieving husband, a motherless baby girl and a giant void in Downton Abbey‘s tiny (read: nonexistent) community of burgeoning feminists. In her two-and-a-half seasons on Downton, Sybil made plenty of waves with her traditionalist family. She was the first female Crawley to – gasp! – don pants at dinner. She trained as a nurse during World War I. But most shockingly, she poured a giant vat of warm beer over the hallowed British class system by marrying the chauffeur.
In Downton time, it’s been two years since Sybil’s death, but her memory lives on well into Season Four through the widowed Tom Branson, now-toddler Sybbie and, in an unexpected turn, her sister, Lady Edith. With Jessica Brown Findlay’s departure from the series in the middle of Season Three, Lily James was brought on soon afterward as the newest infusion of “young” blood in the form of 18-year-old Lady Rose MacClare. But despite a naughty streak – slumming it at working-class dances, her penchant for flapper dresses and, as of last Sunday, finding comfort in the arms of an African-American jazz singer – Rose is hardly the embodiment of the life lessons Sybil left behind.
Edith, however, as Season Four progresses, appears to be the successor to her younger sister’s legacy, in the sense that, like Sybil, she’s no longer waiting for her life to start. She’s creating an existence for herself in which she’s in control, and one that in many ways, is far more scandalous than settling down with a man who used to drive cars for a living. And that’s why her story line has been so compelling this season. Yes, Lady Mary is coming into her own as a co-owner of Downton. But other than not getting to be Countess of Grantham, once she selects a new suitor, her life will be no different than it was when she was married to Matthew.
No doubt, Lady Edith Crawley is a victim of the age-old middle-child syndrome. This Edwardian Jan Brady spent her debutante years pining away for a man destined to become her sister’s husband (original heir Patrick Crawley), then making googly eyes over a doddering old fool who looked scared shitless every time she flashed her toothy smile (Sir Anthony Strallan). In Season One, Edith was a straight-up bitch who spent the two years prior to the war trying to sabotage every one of Mary’s potential husbands. Her character was so pathetic and unappealing that Late Night With Jimmy Fallon’s parody Downton Sixbey paid Edith the ultimate insult by having Fred Armisen portray her as “Lady Hedith.” But by Season Two, Edith had softened a bit and had thrown herself into the war effort. Instead of sitting around moping over the lack of eligible men, she learned to drive a car and wound up managing non-medical patient care when Downton was taken over as a convalescent home.
But it was getting jilted at the altar in Season Three by Sir ANTony GimpyArm that, while traumatizing at the time, was the best thing to happen to Edith since her first simpering appearance the morning that the Titanic went down. After some prodding from the always-tart Dowager Countess (“You’re a woman with a brain and reasonable ability. Stop whining and find something to do”), Edith quit her bitching and got down to work: One letter to The Times regarding votes for women and next thing you know, she’s writing a regular column for The Sketch newspaper – much to her father’s disapproval (Sybil is smiling at you from heaven, Edith!) and gently starting a love affair with her editor, Michael Gregson.
Now that we’re well into Season Four, Edith may not be rouging her knees or rolling her stockings down, but that slinky seafoam-colored gown she wore to meet Michael at the Criterion in Episode One introduced us to a brand-new, thoroughly modern Edith (and how about that snake bracelet she donned Sunday night?). Whereas Sybil made poor Tom wait six years before he could steal a kiss, Edith is now puckering up in public with her still-married boyfriend. And as the most recent episode revealed, Edith brought her generation one step closer to the social mores of the Roaring Twenties with her decision to spend the night with Michael. It’s pretty safe to say for all of their rule-breaking, Tom and Sybil didn’t have sex until after the priest made it legal. And, well, we all know what happened the last time Lady Mary tried to have intercourse without first taking a marriage vow. . .
With Michael flying off to Reno with Henry Francis – I mean, moving to Germany in order to obtain a divorce from his loony-bin-incarcerated wife – and Lady Rosamund cluck-clucking at her niece for tiptoeing in at 6 a.m., Lady Edith’s antics are probably taking a breather for the time being. But this is Downton Abbey, and no one ever has sex without consequences (Lady Mary aside, remember what happened when former housemaid Ethel struck up a dalliance with Major Charles Bryant?). Plus, Post-war Germany? Edith being given authority over Michael’s affairs? Forget foreshadowing – Julian Fellowes should just replace Laura Linney’s “This is Masterpiece” introduction with “MICHAEL! EDITH! ACHTUNG! DANGER AHEAD!”
As viewers, we have the advantage of historical knowledge (and, yes, we know that Michael is heading into treacherous waters by moving to a country on the brink of economic and governmental collapse). But what series creator Fellowes has also given us is the confidence that Edith can handle whatever obstacles are thrown her way. Last season, moments after Edith’s wedding went bust, her mother, Cora, imparted a dose of wisdom that echoes through every move Edith makes now: “You are being tested. . . Being tested only makes you stronger.” There is much more drama in store for our favorite middle child, and unlike in previous seasons, instead of instilling us with a feeling of ennui, Edith’s story line will be the reason we tune in to PBS on Sunday nights.