love letters

Surprise, Downton Abbey’s Lady Edith Is Great Now!

Photo: PBS

I know exactly when I decided to hate Edith, the oft-overlooked middle daughter on Downton Abbey: It was early in season one when she mailed off a letter detailing her sister Mary’s sexual conquest and then yelled “Slut!” at said sister in the middle of a fancy hallway. It was a vicious act, and stupid (who is going to marry the second daughter of a disgraced family, Edith?) — but mostly it was incredibly annoying, which was always my biggest problem with Edith. Mary was cruel, yes, but in a delicious, Edwardian Mean Girls sort of way. Edith was whiny. Petty. A prude. Even her family joked about her. And this was all before she started making moony eyes at a fake Canadian gold digger.

Which is why I was surprised to find myself cheering last night as Edith finally consummated her love with Michael Gregson. Characters don’t progress very often on Downton: Mary and the Dowager Countess always know best, Bates is always a saint, and every time Thomas shows a hint of human compassion, he quickly invents another scheme to remind you how evil he is. The characters are as fixed in their Good and Evil roles as they are in the English class system, and Edith had been established early on as Anti-Mary, which meant that she fell squarely in the “villain” category. Whatever personal growth she might demonstrate would always be limited by that setup.

I am happy to say that so far, Downton is proving me entirely wrong. Edith has become the most progressive Crawley sister: She has a successful writing career; she has demonstrated a remarkable capacity to love, even in difficult situations (like, say, when there is a crazy wife locked away in an asylum, Jane Eyre–style); and she has even softened toward Mary. Oh, and she’s had sex now, which makes her a Woman of the World and ten times more fun than the rule-following, slut-shaming Edith of season one. She has learned, and changed, which rarely happens on Downton. That the show has managed to achieve this shift gradually — as opposed to writing some absurd, Come to Jesus episode that reinvents her personality overnight — makes being on Team Edith all the more appealing. She has earned our support. She deserves it more than Mary, probably, at this point, but it’s refreshing not to have to choose.

That situation might change once Michael Gregson meets some new friends in Germany and turns Lady Edith into a fake Diana Mitford. (Everyone else heard Germany in 1922 and thought Nazis, right?) It is possible that Edith might become a Fascist and abandon her entire family, right around the moment that Laura Carmichael wants to star in a movie. It is also possible that she might just get dumped and become crabby again. The point is that whatever Edith’s fate — and seriously, I’d put like $20 down on Nazis — Downton Abbey is capable of reconsidering its major characters. That is a skill that will prove useful come season twelve.

Surprise, Downton’s Lady Edith Is Great Now!