DH and I just finished watching season three of Downton Abbey. It was a season watched hurriedly over many meals together, squeezing in 20 minutes when we could find them when the little one was quiet and satisfied. This season is its most unbelievably soap opera-ish season yet, which, at the end of the season, left me less interested in the show and terribly upset. Yet this season sought to humanize one of the main characters, Mary, and make her into a nicer, more supportive person, though in my opinion she gets very two-dimensional character development toward that end.
If you are a Downton Abbey fan and have not watched all of season three, do not keep reading! ********SPOILER ALERT*********
Mary and Matthew Crawley are the heirs apparent to the Downton Abbey estate. Now happily married, Matthew starts talking about filling the house with their children. This talk is especially escalated knowing that Mary’s sister Cybil is pregnant and due any moment. But whenever Matthew brings it up, Mary gets a little sullen – her eyes dart to the side and you sense her hesitation in sharing Matthew’s optimism for filling the house with kids. We as the audience begin to wonder immediately if Mary knows something we don’t… is she pregnant? Is she unable to get pregnant? Is she not thrilled about having kids? We don’t know. But Matthew is nothing but googly-eyed over it.
A few more months go by and Matthew begins to wonder if the problem is with him due to his war injury. He keeps talking to Mary about it, wondering out loud if he’s to blame for her not being pregnant, but she remains kind of silent on the issue. Matthew goes to a doctor and is assured he’s not the problem. He is quite relieved and returns home to Mary. Mary, in the meantime, is reassured by her mother that with a certain doctor she would be in good hands. We as the audience assume this means she’s either pregnant or looking into the issue herself.
Finally we learn that Mary had some anatomical problem that required a minor surgery that was hindering her ability to get pregnant. She relates to Matthew that now there shouldn’t be a problem. And lo and behold one year later, she’s well on her way to mommy-hood.
At first I thought Downton had missed an opportunity to talk about infertility. After all, Mary and Matthew were married long enough without children that everyone began wondering when they were going to have kids (presumably one to two years). That would fit the definition of being infertile. But then I reflected on the values of the 1910s and 1920s in the UK. Women don’t have the right to vote, they can’t inherit property (otherwise Mary wouldn’t have had to marry, which was the whole premise of Season 1), and gentrified women don’t hold jobs outside of charity work. It would make sense that Matthew felt absolutely comfortable being open and honest about his own fears of being infertile. Meanwhile, Mary knows she’s got a problem – a problem that is never defined – but can’t even share it with her husband. It is a silent, unnamed shame that she has to bear until she is able to go alone to a doctor for assistance. As a woman once in her shoes, I couldn’t help but feel oppressed for her.
I don’t know if the show meant to show that dichotomy and contrast Matthew and Mary’s societal cues about having children. If they did, kudos to them for being honest about it – but I wish they still didn’t keep it a silent, undefined issue. After all, Mary’s hesitancy seemed to be written in more for dramatic effect and as a plot device rather than an actual thoughtful presentation of infertility. Which was kind of my problem with the season finale, actually – but we won’t get into that. It was just too upsetting.
What did you think? Did Mary and Matthew’s fertility arc this season make you feel validated or distanced? Did you see Mary’s “minor surgery” as a convenient afterthought or an honest portrayal?