They can kill off Sybil, and they can kill off Matthew, but if they kill off Lady Violet, there will be hell to pay.
As the materfamilias of “Downton Abbey”’s Grantham clan, Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham, is the queen of the bon mot (search “Sh!t the Dowager Countess Says” on YouTube) and a beloved, cranky granny to us all. Even more, she’s the kind of woman we secretly long to be: unbowed, unfettered, and uncensored. In more modern times, she would be admired as “an old broad.” After all, despite her most refined demeanor, she is “tougher than I look.” She certainly never suffers a fool. And she will not be “handled.” Lady Violet (if I may portray her with such familiarity) knows her own mind, and she comes and goes as she pleases. And wherever she goes, she goes in splendid style, as if she owns the place. Which, of course, she once did.
Lady Violet has seized her advanced age as a license not to please. It doesn’t occur to her to mask her distaste or disapproval: she’s earned her opinions. And one can only wonder what of life’s pain and disappointment and occasional cruelties she endured in the process.
Her greatest desire is to stay at the center of the action. (“I hate Greek drama, when everything happens off stage.”) She refuses to be rendered an invisible old lady, even though the death of her husband has demoted her to a vestigial “dowager.” Much like the discarded lover Alex Forrest in “Fatal Attraction,” Lady Violet refuses to be ignored. With her last breath, she will remain a central player in the Grantham family drama.
And why not? She is the most observant – and sensitive — of the entire lot. It was Lady Violet who saw early on that Sybil had a hankering for the chauffeur. She who saw that Mary was still in love with Matthew (“I was watching her the other night, when you spoke of your wedding. She looked like Juliet on awakening in the tomb”). And she who saw that the “fallen” servant Ethel Parks was suffering unnecessarily by staying on in Isobel Crawley’s employ.
Lady Violet is also the most politic of the lot. She does not wear the trousers required to be direct about it, so she presses and wields her influence behind-the-scenes. She’s always strategizing. Remember when she strong-armed the parochial village minister into marrying William and Daisy? Or when she persuaded Dr. Clarkson to tell Cora and Robert that Sybil would likely have died even if she had undergone a caesarean (“‘Lie’ is so unmusical a word.”)? Or when she surreptitiously sent Sybil and Tom the money to attend Mary and Matthew’s wedding?
Her insight into human nature is fine-tuned: “My dear, when tragedies strike, we try to find someone to blame. And in the absence of a suitable candidate, we usually blame ourselves.” And her commitment to getting things done unwavering. If nothing else, she is pragmatic. “I so seldom talk about matters of the heart, because it is so seldom useful,” she explains to William. Lady Violet is a “fixer.” And when she cannot claim victory, she finds the spin. When her new son-in-law, the household’s former chauffeur, becomes a fait accompli, she immediately begins to imagine how she can rebrand him as a journalist of notable relations. She’s the ultimate domestic politician, and one wonders what she could have accomplished if permitted into the public sphere.
The irony is that, today, women do have access to the public sphere, and we still demonstrate the need to please. As far as women have come, as talented as we have proven ourselves in the workplace, we still have to deal with the final cultural imperative for women: likability. Unlike Lady Violet, we can earn our own money, decide our own marriages (and divorces), and earn our own titles, but we still have to be perceived as likable. Research has shown that women in the workplace are expected to be likable and suffer a disadvantage if they are not perceived as such; men, who are not expected to be likable, gain an advantage when they are perceived as such. What would it be like if we did not have to monitor and temper our words, our actions, our accomplishments? If we were “ambitious as we wanna be?” If we spoke truth to power just as freely as Lady Violet?
Beware, “Downton Abbey” writers, just in case you’re harboring any intimations of mortality for the dear old girl: The Countess Dowager will not go tragically, like Sybil. She will not go unwittingly, like Matthew. And she certainly will not go gentle.