Friday, March 11, 2016

Downton Abbey, Jane Eyre, and the mad wife





(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.

 

11 comments:

  1. Love this post! I never stopped thinking about Michael's mentally ill wife either. Thanks for giving her a little mention on the interwebs. I found I was never able to see Mr Gregson as good husband material for Edith, since the "in sickness and in health" clause, when the going got tough, just left him with self pity and a desperation to escape. I kept wondering what malady his wife had...early onset Alzheimer's? Untreated psychosis? Poor woman indeed, especially given the era.

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    1. Hi Erin - thanks for reading and for your comment. That's a good point about not knowing what was even wrong with Lizzie. Actually, when you think about it, there was no real reason, plot-wise, for Gregson to be married. His relationship with Edith could have been complicated enough without that: he could have travelled to Germany for some reason related to his journalism and still disappeared, leaving her pregnant. It just seemed like a lame plot cliche to me, and a sad one.

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  2. The story used Lizzie horribly, in my mind. her character was manipulated so we'd feel sorry for Gregson? And then he goes and gets killed by Nazi Brown Shirts, making us feel even more sorry for him. Sheesh.

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    1. I know, right? I can't say I ever really warmed to him -- and maybe the writers sensed the audience hadn't, either.

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  3. "But it's still sad to see a person with a devastating mental illness treated as meaningless and invisible." I agree. Whenever I include someone with mental illness in one of my stories, I try to give that character a meaning and visibility beyond just being a speedbump in the plotline. In my current WIP, the teen protagonist's mother is rather like Lizzie: she's been in a mental hospital for years, with little to no hope for recovery. She doesn't "appear" on the page except through her daughter's memories, but the daughter has complex, mixed emotions toward her mother, and has to wrestle through those to find love and forgiveness for her. Hopefully, I'm not stereotyping or adding to the stigma in any way. I guess she's the "mad mom" trope rather than the "mad wife" one.

    Your thoughts on Lizzie and how the Downton Abbey writers dealt with her (or not) are terrific, Jeannie. Can I link to it in an upcoming post?

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    1. That's really interesting about your character, Laura. She clearly has a lot of significance as a person even if she doesn't actually show up in any scenes.

      I've emailed you about using the link in your post - sure, thanks for asking!

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  4. I had forgotten about that! Maybe since I skipped seasons 4 and 5. (Long story.) But I know I must have seen it in season 3. Thanks for sharing your musings here. I'm going to miss Downton Abbey too! (And LOVE Jane Eyre.)

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    1. Thanks, Betsy - I always appreciate your comments.

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  5. Very lovely post. It's very interesting how in period films the mentally ill are treated poorly (especially in that time period) even if you weren't truly mentally ill, being sent to one of those asylums would assure something would go wrong.

    I just came across your blog from another blogger mentioning this post in her blog, I'm glad I dropped by. The topic of Downton Abbey sparked my interest. I also watched Downton Abbey, every season. I have to admit that the storyline with Gregson never really sat well with me from the moment I heard that he was married. During the final season Edith ended up really being my favorite character on the show. I really had forgotten about Gregson's wife because of Edith becoming pregnant with Gregsons baby and I know in that time that was a major scandal to not only have a baby out of wedlock making it an illegitimate bastard, but a baby by a married man, it would have ruined their family. How that story played out in the end with the big reveal by Lady Mary really was one of the shows best episodes. I recently begun to watch a movie with Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant that was recommended to me, (It wasn't the very popular Notorious, I can't remember the name of the film). I didn't particularly like the story because of a similar situation with the lead character being married or Ingrid's character being under the impression that he was married but that ever stopped her from pursuing him and falling in love with him. I couldn't watch anymore to see how it all turned out because I just can't root for an adulterous relationship to prosper, and many films tend to romanticize adultery like they were pretty much doing with Edith and Gregson's story.

    This is a great blog post and I love how you mentioned Jane Eyre which is another fave of mine. I really like period films, I have an entire blog dedicated to it. I don't know if you heard of 'The Tenant of Wildfell Hall', by Anne Bronte, very nice period film. I love the lead character and how she dealt with a somewhat similar situation to Edith and Gregson.

    Thanks for sharing such a lovely post with us. :-) I will checkout other posts on your blog.

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    1. Thanks so much for stopping by and sharing your thoughts! I love period films too. I've seen "The Tenant of Wildfell Hall" -- you mean the one with Toby Stephens, right? The actor who played the husband was SO good at portraying such a horrible but pathetic character. Have you seen "Daniel Deronda" (BBC movie)? It follows 2 parallel storylines: a young man exploring his roots, and a young woman who needs to marry a wealthy man to keep her family from going destitute. Hugh Bonneville (Lord Grantham of Downton Abbey) plays the cold, rich man -- what a change of character for him. Anyway you might like that one if you haven't seen it. Thanks again for visiting my blog!

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    2. Yup, that's the one I watched with Toby Stephens. I have heard of "Daniel Deronda", I will have to check it out when I get some time. :-)

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