Politics & Policy

The Mothers of Downton Abbey

The nature of motherhood is a central theme of the show’s third season.

Downton Abbey closed its third season with the estate’s heir, Matthew Crawley, assuring his wife, Mary, that she’ll be a good mother to their new son because she’s a good woman. His comment rings all the more poignant because this fairy-tale couple is about to face disaster: Matthew is tragically killed in a car accident on the way home from the hospital.

Truth be told, viewers may not be as assured of the sort of mother Mary will be — although she certainly demonstrated commitment to becoming a mother by undergoing an unspecified fertility-enhancing surgery — but Season 3 did offer several models of motherhood. Given that the show revolves around the Crawley family, that in itself is not remarkable, but since the show’s creator and writer isn’t a woman, it was an interesting and even bold narrative choice. It also provided great dramatic tension.

The show’s women acted as prisms, reflecting and contrasting one other’s personalities and mothering styles. So much of what defines these women’s lives and informs their identities is motherhood, in large part because of the era they live in but also because of who these particular women are.

The season opened with the arrival of Cora’s mother, Martha Levinson (Shirley MacLaine), in time for Mary and Matthew’s wedding. This afforded us our first real glimpse of Cora’s former American world. Martha seems brash and liberal in the context of Downton, especially in contrast with the more understated and tradition-revering dowager countess, Violet Crawley. The tension between the machatunim is evident even before Martha’s arrival, when Violet quips that Mrs. Levinson always reminds her “of the virtues of the English.”

When Martha and Violet disagree at dinner, Cora sides with her mother-in-law. Cora may have become more British over time, or she may never have shared her mother’s outlook and manner. Like aloe vera, Cora’s character tends toward soothing, especially when daughter Edith is jilted at the altar.

Violet is also contrasted with Cousin Isobel during a conversation about childrearing. Isobel asks Violet whether she was actively involved in raising her children. Violet says yes, surprising Isobel, who had presumed (correctly) that Violet spent only an hour a day with her children, and only after the nanny had prepared them for the occasion. Even that limited interaction apparently felt like a lot to the witty but rarely warm Violet. Of course, we presume that middle-class Isobel was more actively involved in raising Matthew, her only child.

This season also marked a generational shift, with Sybil becoming the first mother among the three Crawley sisters. Not only does she act as a protective mother by beginning to line up support within her familial ranks for her husband’s wish for their child to be christened a Catholic, but she also makes the ultimate maternal sacrifice, dying from eclampsia soon after delivery.

Sybil’s death hits everyone hard, but Cora truly suffers, as she laments the loss of her (grown) baby. She blames her husband, Robert, for taking medical advice from a famous London doctor rather than Dr. Clarkson, the local physician, and this rocks the Crawleys’ steady marriage.

Violet meddles at this point, in one of her most maternal acts to date. She persuades Dr. Clarkson to lie about Sybil’s odds of survival, in an effort to mend Cora and Robert’s marriage and ensure that they grieve together.

The Crawleys do reconcile, but we don’t really notice this until the season’s end, when everyone heads to Scotland to visit their cousins, the supremely unhappily married Susan and Shrimpie. Susan is Cora’s opposite in nearly every way, always unhappy and sharply critical of everyone, especially her youngest child, Rose. Rose seemingly bears the brunt of her parents’ agitated arrangement, rebelling whenever possible and otherwise attempting to avoid her mother. Some of this rebellion may simply be related to Rose’s being 18. However, with Rose’s heading to Downton, the calmer Cora will replace Susan in Rose’s daily life, while Rose may be able to fill Sybil’s shoes as the youngest and most rebellious young woman in the Crawley household.

As for Mary, she will begin Season 4 as both a widow and a new mother, two challenging roles. One hopes that motherhood will suit her; at the very least, it looks like Julian Fellowes won’t keep her lonely for too long. So she may still find her happy ending after all.

Melissa Langsam Braunstein, a former U.S. Department of State speechwriter, is now a freelance writer in Washington, D.C.