The Kiddy Pool: Feelings and Truth in Downton Abbey
Every Tuesday in The Kiddy Pool, Erin Newcomb confronts one of many issues that parents must deal with related to popular culture.
I’ve always loved the e.e. cummings poem that begins “since feeling is first/who pays any attention/to the syntax of things/will never wholly kiss you;” First published in a 1926 collection, the poem showcases the poet’s signature style, with disregard for capitalization and ideas that flow into each other with little punctuation for pauses. Even the complete thought I offer here ends with a semi-colon to show its connectedness to the rest of the poem, which, in its 16 lines contains only full stop somewhere in the middle. It is, as I read it, a poem of love and life that defies rules of standardized English just as the love described challenges the conventions of its day.
I make the comparison after last night’s episode of Downton Abbey—season 5, episode 3—in which Lady Mary (played by Michelle Dockery) returns from her tryst with Lord Gillingham (played by Tom Cullen). When Maggie Smith’s Dowager Countess discovers the affair, she cautions her granddaughter “In my day, a lady was incapable of feeling physical attraction until she had been instructed to do so by her mama.” The conversation sets up a generational conflict set in the changing, unstable times, where social hierarchies (including those that govern marriage, perhaps especially for the aristocracy) disintegrate in each ensuing episode. Mary’s respectable Granny advises her to “control her feelings” before her feelings take control of her.
This episode, set in 1924, can serve as a counterpart to cummings’ poem. Yet while Violet Crawley seems to assume that Mary swoons for Tony as if they exist in an unpunctuated poem, the feelings that swirl through cummings’ lines do not seem to be the same as those that direct Mary’s actions. Season after season, Lady Mary plays the role of ice queen extraordinaire, saving her frostiest words for her sister Edith (played by Laura Carmichael), whom even the Downton writers use each week as a punching bag. Of all the cast of characters, Mary seems least likely to be swept up in passion, and even in the hotel scenes where she (literally) let down her hair, she remained a bastion of reserve and composure.
Even the premise of the week-long getaway with Gillingham seemed rooted not in passion but in fear—a pervasive anxiety about what marriage and family life might look like in the closer quarters of her generation. She references that point in episode 2 as she justifies the trip to Anna (played by Joanne Froggatt). Mary may indeed be ruled by her feelings, but feelings of fear instead of pleasure or passion or lust. Granny’s quip about mothers instructing their children how to feel is, like most of Violet’s lines, intended to be pithy and comical. I find it especially so after a morning of trying to teach a toddler to compose herself; I have a hunch that telling her what to feel won’t work well later in life, either. We do feel first, but if we are wise we filter our feelings through God’s truths.
I am particularly drawn to the point about controlling one’s feelings so as not to be controlled by them, as that point bears the truth. Whether driven by desire or anxiety, Mary’s actions are unlikely to serve her best interests, a point the producers no doubt enjoy because it makes for a more interesting plot. Without conflict, there is no story. Mary is concerned with her worldly comfort, and Violet seeks to uphold the family reputation, but neither (unlike Anna, who fears she is “aiding and abetting sin”) expresses concern about the spiritual ramifications of Mary’s decisions.
Self-control, is, after all, a fruit of the spirit, because God knows it is not good for us to be wholly ruled by our feelings. cummings asserts “kisses are a better fate/than wisdom” in a poem that beautifully breaks the rules of English syntax, yet I would argue that the poet remains in control, defying convention to highlight its purposes and shortcomings. But as much as I admire the structure (or lack thereof) of cummings’ work, I can’t agree that kisses are preferable to wisdom, nor would I advise Lady Mary to follow that line, because even cummings’ speaker admits “life’s not a paragraph/And death I think is no parenthesis”. The rules of language can never perfectly compare to the rules of the kingdom, because the first is ruled by humans and the second by God. So feeling may indeed be first, but for the sake of our spiritual health, truth must be the standard, and there is no room for fear or impurity in that perfect truth that is, after all, no parenthesis.