(Warning: post contains spoilers)
Downton Abbey ended last weekend after its sixth and final season. Like millions of other fans of the show, I loved it, and I'm going to miss it. Yes, I still have my DVD's, but it's not the same.
The grande finale episode was very touching and satisfying. Still, I'm left with this feeling that the Crawleys and their staff are going on with their life without us, and we're missing it!
In most cases I enjoy thinking about the characters moving on in life. It's fun to envision the three Crawley children fussing over Baby Bates and, in a few months, Baby Talbot; and to imagine Andy and Daisy's youthful romance unfolding alongside the possibility of Mr. Mason and Mrs. Patmore's not-so-youthful one.
But it's a little sadder to think about other characters -- like Lizzie.
If you don't remember a character named Lizzie, that's not surprising. She never appeared on screen, and she was mentioned only a few times -- only once, I think, by name.
She was Michael Gregson's mad wife.
When Edith Crawley noticed London editor Michael Gregson showing a romantic interest in her, she picked up the phone and called his newspaper office to ask about his private life -- only to find out he was married. When she confronted him, he admitted he was married, but that his wife had been in an insane asylum for many years.
The "mad wife" trope is, of course, best known in Jane Eyre. But at least in that novel, the mad wife's existence caused the characters some genuine moral misgivings. When Jane found out on her wedding day about Rochester's tragic secret, her choice was clear: he wasn't free to marry her, and she couldn't live in sin, so she fled to avoid temptation and reassert her own strength and dignity. And even Rochester had done the noble thing by taking his wife home and ensuring she was cared for, even though he had been tricked into marrying her.
But in Downton Abbey, the mad wife is just a plot device. Edith never shows one iota of sympathy or pity for Lizzie Gregson and never offers to distance herself from Michael to ease his moral dilemma. In fact, for him it barely is a moral dilemma. He does say, "Lizzie was a wonderful person. I loved her very much. It took me a long time to accept that the woman I knew was gone and wouldn't be coming back." But by the time we meet him, whatever struggle of acceptance he might have gone through is done: Lizzie is now just an annoying obstacle between him and Edith. I cringe at the scene in Season 3 when Gregson is fishing with Matthew and whining about his fate:
"Of course it's a lot to ask [that Edith get involved with him knowing he's married], but what else can I do? I'm prevented from divorcing a woman who doesn't even know who I am. Does the law expect me to have no life at all until I die?"
The practical Matthew replies, "You've been misled by our surroundings. We're not in a novel by Walter Scott."
Or a novel by Charlotte Bronte, either, apparently. Edith falls in love with Gregson; he tells her that if he moves to Germany he can divorce Lizzie ("You'd do that? For me?" Edith says meltingly...); then he disappears and is found dead, leaving Edith with a baby whose identity she must hide. The Edith-and-baby plotline comes to dominate the last three seasons.
Finally, in the end, Edith achieves true happiness: she finds love with a new man and gains a title of honour. I'm glad for her.
But I feel very sorry for Lizzie -- because if we imagine the characters we know and love having an ongoing existence beyond the grand finale episode, then we have to imagine her having an ongoing existence, too. And in 1925 it would have been a pretty bleak one.
I know, I know: it's just a TV program with fictional characters, and with so many subplots the writer can't be expected to do justice to every single thread of the story. But it's still sad to see a person with a devastating mental illness treated as meaningless and invisible.
So I just want to say: Lizzie, I wish you well. I hope you've found a little bit of happiness in your life and that somehow you know you're more than just a speed bump in someone else's plotline.