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Downton Abbey's heartbreak crosses class lines, some thoughts

By April MacIntyre Jan 28, 2013, 19:50 GMT

Downton Abbey's heartbreak crosses class lines, some thoughts

Lord Crowley sees his family heritage and stately home Downton Abbey as his mission in life. The death of his heir aboard the Titanic means distant cousin Matthew Crawley, a Manchester lawyer, suddenly is next in line and comes into the estate with his local activist and former nurse mother, who clashes with his lordship\'s conservative dowager mother. Marrying off the daughters is another concern. The servants have their own side stories and ...more

Spoiler alert- stop now if you have not seen the episode.

The one daughter of Lady and Lord Grantham that was beloved by all, and who married a chauffeur, thereby declaring in that simple action she neither felt above or better than the downstairs group of servants, died in a botched labor and diagnosis after her daughter was born at the Abbey.

Sybil (Jessica Brown Findlay), who wed the Irish Tom Branson (Allen Leech) against her family's wishes, was the victim of male ego and prideful ignorance. Her preclampsia, a condition that puts both the lives of mother and child at risk later in pregnancy - was scoffed at by Sir Philip (Tim Pigott-Smith), a peer of her father Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville). The family doctor in attendance, Dr. Clarkson (David Robb), was spot on in calling the condition and had the trust of mother Cora (Elizabeth McGovern), her intuition telling her that Sybil's distress was not a normal labor.

The battle between Dr. Clarkson and Sir Philip leads to Sybil delivering her baby then succumbing to eclampsia, where she dies from severe seizures due to this preeclampsia and toxemia left untreated during her pregnancy. Sybil being rushed to hospital for an emergency Cesarean per Dr. Clarkson's wishes may have saved her life, but Sir Philip leads Lord Grantham to believe this was all posh and piffle, and Dr. Clarkson is left unable to sway the family to act.

The death of Sybil hits hardest for many reasons. Sybil was the most American of Cora's three girls. She was egalitarian, kind and didn't see people divided by station in life.

However, older sister Mary is an insufferable traditionalist, elitist and conniver. Middle sister Ethel is perpetually the tragic victim who whinges and wrings her hands, instead of just making things happen, even when she gets a bolstering offer to write a column for the newspaper. When her father makes a comment at breakfast about her only getting the opportunity because of her title (ostensibly for the papers to sell more) she should have told her father to stuff it right then and there, and moved the hell out of Downton. That will never happen because Edith has no spine for such confrontation and the times were not easy for women to earn and achieve independence.   

The scene where Sybil slowly dies - and most gruesomely I may add - was hard to watch. Heartbreak all around as Lady Violet (Maggie Smith) and the whole family mourn their Sybil, as the entire group of servants too. Even Thomas (Rob James-Collier), reveals the whys of his calculating hardness in a veil of tears, "Not many have been kind to me...She was one of the few."

Indeed, Sybil's character most underscored the modernizing of English aristocracy in this time period, accepting and moving away from the notion of class and station within society as a norm. Americans love the pageantry and pomp of observing the royals and all their ceremonies, but in real life practice, the idea that your birth determines your worth is absurd to us as a nation.  We celebrate the achievers and those who invent, create and succeed. Wealthy heirs are an anathema here.

Time will tell if Lady Cora forgive her husband Lord Grantham for not letting Dr. Clarkson prevail as she wished.  Hearts are heavy and hard right now at the Abbey.

Downton Abbey airs Sundays at 9/8c on PBS.



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