Downton Abbey: Guilt, Shame, and the Fear of Confession
Warning: This article contains spoilers about the sixth episode of Downton Abbey’s fourth season.
Each week, Christ and Pop Culture will present an analysis of the latest Downton Abbey episode after it airs on PBS.
Episode One: Downton Abbey: A Job Well Done.
Episode Two: Downton Abbey: Things We’ve Lost.
Episode Three: Downton Abbey: Bring the Light.
Episode Four: Downton Abbey: All in the Family.
Episode Five: Downton Abbey: Means to an End?
This week’s episode of Downton Abbey was full of moments to bring back any viewer who may have been on the fence about whether or not to stick it through to the end of the season. Lady Mary deals rather closely with Napier and Blake as they talk through the affairs of the estate — not to mention that three, maybe four, contenders for her time and attention have brought some romantic excitement into the season. Alfred wants to pay Downton a visit, but with the stress it would cause between Daisy and Ivy, that visit is initially prevented. Cousin Rose remains the spunky individual she has shown herself to be, hitching a ride with Lady Edith to London to galavant with Jack Ross, who is keenly aware that their relationship can never last. Anna’s secret is shared with Mary, providing a moment of peace, and hopes that justice will be served. Edith has confided in Aunt Rosamund about her pregnancy and even tells her of plans to abort the child while she visits London. Isobel tends to the Dowager Countess, who is suffering through a bout of bronchitis, and it seems that she is back in her element as a caregiver. As playful and tense as their relationship may be, it was lovely to see kindness from Isobel to Violet in this episode. There’s a lot going on in the house these days; how it’s all going to come together in the end, I’m anxious to find out.
It could be easy to talk about the love-square Lady Mary is involved in, the love-triangle between Daisy, Ivy, and Alfred, and even the soon-t0-be-over Rose and Jack, but there’s more to Downton then the who’s-going-to-end-up-with-whom drama that is often peddled.
I see in this particular episode something we’ve seen before, which is a recognition of guilt and possible shame from those around us. It is clearly seen in Anna’s rape, her inner struggle of feeling guilt and outwardly displaying shame, clearly evident in front of Bates and even Lady Mary. We also see this in Lady Edith’s guilt about her pregnancy and a perceived assumption of shame as a result, to the point that she schedules an abortion secretly. While each of these women handles her guilt differently, they are both aware that the secret they are keeping in their society can shame them. It can’t be easy for either of these women to be completely honest about what’s happened to them, or where they’ve found themselves.
In episode five, we saw Anna and Bates planning an evening out together, and as plans were talked through, Anna expressed her to desire to make new memories, good memories, with Bates, in hopes that the happiness they shared once before can be restored. A moment later, she tearfully acknowledged that every moment they share together is shadowed. She carries shame at what has been done to her, and it can’t be shaken, not even in the presence of her husband. This sense of shame is what makes sharing the truth Lady Mary so hard. Even though what was done to Anna was neither her fault nor Bates’s, she wears guilt and shame, which hinder her from being able to share and confide in Mary until this point. When Lord Grantham is asked to come to America, Bates refuses to leave Anna and asks Mrs. Hughes to help them. Ultimately, Mary learns of the attack against Anna and intervenes. When Bates learns that Thomas is taking his place on the trip to America, he realizes that it’s because Mary now knows of Anna’s attack. He himself feels guilt over what had taken place, and Mary does her best to assure him that it was neither his nor Anna’s fault. A sense of shame remains, however, leading to a struggle to confess and bring honesty to the forefront.
As Edith grapples with the unknown whereabouts of Gregson in Munich, she is secretly withholding news of her pregnancy. She’s found herself in a controversial situation and feels incapable of keeping the child. How could she keep the baby and not be a disgrace to the family? What about Gregson? Rather than publicly bear the shame of the situation, Edith decides that the best and least-shameful option is to terminate the pregnancy. Before making the trip to London, Edith sits with her mother and asks if she think she’s bad because she has bad feelings. Cora assures Edith that it’s not bad thoughts or feelings but bad actions that make us bad. Is it possible that Lady Edith does in fact see herself as bad, because she has slept with Gregson and is now pregnant? Is she afraid to confess her guiltiness to her mother because of the shame it might bring her family? Later on in the episode, we see an emotional conversation between Edith and Aunt Rosamund about this very thing. The secret is finally confessed, and Rosamund is devastated to learn of Edith’s abortion plans. She expresses her willingness to help in any way and tries to get Edith to understand the danger involved. When Edith refuses to change her position, Rosamund goes along with her to the clinic in London. Watching as they wait together, we hear faint cries from the back room. Edith stands and glances through a cracked doorway, sees a young woman, and turns to grab her bag. As the nurse comes to retrieve Edith, she exclaims her realization that it was a mistake, and they leave. What caused Edith to leave? Has she found enough strength to bear the societal shame of her consequences? As difficult as the days ahead may be for Lady Edith, I am relieved with the way this episode played out.
I often wonder what produces honesty in sharing our guilt and bracing ourselves for potential shame finally to take place. For Anna and Edith, it seems to come when they feel they have nowhere else to go for help, no other option. Anna fled to Mrs. Hughes for help after her rape, and then to Lady Mary when more help was needed to keep Bates at Downton. Lady Edith confides in Aunt Rosamund, who becomes a support and safe place for her, we hope, regardless of what transpires in the remainder of the season. What have these stories taught us about the reality of guilt, the possibility of shame, and the freedom of confession? There’s a certain amount of vulnerability required in being honest when we feels guilt, whether or not its fair for the individual. There’s a sincere desire that the person receiving the guilt-ridden, and potentially shameful confession, will be gracious and understanding with the news. While we watch and grieve the difficulties of life for Anna and Lady Edith, we can affirm these characters as they make steps toward honesty in confessing the guilt that’s causing them such deep-hearted pain.
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