Who else is relieved that Lady Edith Crawley, played by Laura Carmichael, is finally finding happiness on Downton Abbey? Having binged on all of the episodes of the sixth and final season as I was flying to and from Paris last month, I was thrilled to see that Julian Fellowes showed her some good will by the end of his storyline, which finishes in the US with a two-hour episode on March 6th (and for all of my UK friends, forgive the melodrama given this is so last year for you all)!
Lady Edith Goes to London
In my opinion, Fellowes has used Lady Edith’s character to express the cultural and historical changes he set out to script more powerfully than with any other personality he crafted for the series. He began what I consider a brilliant tack for her in season four when she began a move toward a modern life that was so progressive given the stricture it had had before that it included attending a party at Michael Gregson’s, her love interest at the time, with the author Virginia Woolf. This took place in 1922, the year Edith decided to concentrate on a journalism career in London.
Now, as the final bit of storyline is rolling along, we are situated firmly in 1925, and a scene in the first episode of this new season ignited my imagination. It took place when Edith’s aunt, Lady Rosamund Painswick, visits the London flat her niece has inherited from Michael, a modern milieu for its time that represents how the non-aristocratic urbanites were blazing a trail toward cleaner-lined furnishings and abstract art.
When Rosamund walks into the trendy room, she exclaims, “Oh, my dear, how exotic. I expect to find the whole of the Bloomsbury Set curled up in a corner with a book!” Edith replies, “Michael knew quite a few of them, actually. I met Virginia Woolf in this room, and Lytton Strachey, although he didn’t stay long.”
Why it happened in this moment, I’m not sure, but I felt a sudden powerful connection between the vulnerable ache that has run through Edith’s pre-season-six life on the series and the pangs of disquiet that assaulted one of Woolf’s protagonists, Clarissa in Mrs. Dalloway. The awareness left me asking myself whether it could be a random coincidence that the novel was originally published in 1925, the very year Fellowes has mined to create the season-six gestalt his characters are now bringing to its conclusion.
This quote from Virginia’s novel illustrates why I felt an echo between the two fictive characters, even though Edith’s trauma is situationally imposed whereas Clarissa Dalloway’s is self-imposed: “She had a perpetual sense, as she watched the taxi cabs, of being out, out, far out to sea and alone; she always had the feeling that it was very, very dangerous to live even one day.”
This is how the above scene from the novel plays out in the film version of the story starring a composed Vanessa Redgrave as Clarissa Dalloway:
A Bloomsbury Literary Design Adventure
Coalescing, the above inspires me to lift off on a literary design adventure that explores a friendship between Michael, Edith and Virginia, a completely fictive conceit that has no basis in reality. But in order to paint a lively picture that rings somewhat true, I did comb Virginia’s diaries* for mentions of the author’s social life during the time Edith would have been making the rounds in London. Virginia often complains that she is growing weary of going out to tea, even while admitting she can’t resist it: “To leave a door shut that might be open is in my eyes some form of blasphemy.”
Many of her excursions included Lytton, such as a lunch party at the Café Royal on February 13, 1920—an event that took place 96 years ago to the day as I’m writing this. It was organized around a private showing of fellow Bloomsburyan Duncan Grant’s paintings. Virginia reports that Lytton plunked down 70 pounds for one of the artist’s works.
In Fellowes’s storyline of season four, he scripted Virginia chatting with Michael and Edith at parties but I rather like the idea of seeing the couple at an exhibition like this one, walking along the walls to quietly consider whether the art would be too high-brow for his magazine filled with sketched illustrations and black-and-white photography. The real magazine Fellowes gave Michael, now defunct, was called The Sketch, a true British mainstay from 1893 until 1959. From the few issues I’ve managed to find online, it doesn’t seem to have published serious literary reviews or the fine art of the early 1920s so the pair would have left there excited to have met the members of art and literature’s avant-garde though unconvinced the work of the Bloomsbury Set was fitting for the publication’s editorial slant.
Given this is a literary design adventure of my making, I declare that Virginia likes the pair very much, though she doesn’t think highly of his magazine. Her regard for them is victory enough given she could be brutally biting toward others moving around in the society she inhabited. Take this entry from her diaries on February 17, 1922, as an example: “Molly Hamilton sits for her portrait today. Her portrait, to be sure, was a little shadowed by the fact that, but for her, I should have had Lytton in the chair, & should have got more for my money. She is a crude piece of work by comparison.”
Lady Edith’s Not Afraid of Virginia Woolf
This was written two years after Virginia would have met Michael and Edith so she knew their story by then. She would have heard it parsed out during evenings spent discussing the books they were reading and the changing world they faced; feeling quite satisfied with these relationships until Michael plucked up the courage to ask if she would write for him just before he took off for Germany.
She decided not to let on that she considered the magazine beneath her literary intentions to the point that the idea horrified her, opting instead for being gracious about the dilemma in the moment. She did feel relief that he never returned to press her on the matter, even though it meant his demise. This is when she realized the stronger of the two relationships was with Edith.
Once Michael was out of the picture, Virginia found that Edith spoke her mind more freely, and she was delighted to discover the younger woman had tremendous insight where books were concerned. Edith would have been put through her paces, as Virginia’s reading list for the month of February 1922 alone included Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, the Princesse de Cléves by Madame de Lafayette, Sir Walter Scott’s Old Mortality and Nightmare Abbey, and Crotchet Castle by Thomas Love Peacock!
Virginia respected that Edith’s desire to write had propelled her into journalism, which was a balm for Edith given the reaction she’d received around the dining room table at Downton when her writerly leanings were announced, the tone of the brouhaha apparent in the Dowager’s disrespect in this video:
Some tricky disparities would have existed, of course—their libraries, for instance, and the ease (or lack thereof) they had acquiring books. Even the desks at which they put words on paper tell a tale of two realities, which illustrates the power of design to illuminate a story whether it is told in real life or through set decoration.
The library at Highclere Castle, which doubles as Downton Abbey’s biblo-heaven, is a veritable character in the television series and a luxurious one at that. Virginia’s volumes (with Leonard) were anything but posh, though the collection was no slouch in terms of breadth and depth. A large portion of the books they owned has been cataloged by and is now housed at Washington State University—the lot of 6,000 books representing 4,000 titles.
Lady Edith never had a qualm about buying anything while Virginia laments the cost of books she knew she needed for writerly inspiration, weighing each choice—such as Lord Byron’s Correspondence that contained 350 unpublished letters by the poet—to be certain the funds she had were used wisely.
Their writing desks—Edith’s above and Virginia’s below—beautifully illustrate the great divide between their means, though it doesn’t seem Virginia would have minded, as I’ve found no evidence of Lytton’s level of distaste for the aristocracy in her diaries. I may be stretching, but I interpret Edith’s comment that Strachey didn’t stay very long as a sign that Fellowes did his research, inferring that Lytton’s negativity toward the gentry is the reason he would not have stayed long at a fête with a Lady in the mix.
Both authors had close friends among the elite—Woolf’s lover Vita Sackville-West being one and their friend Lady Ottoline Morrell, whom they would visit at Garsington, another. But these titled women weren’t as straight-laced as the Downton Set by any stretch of the imagination. Case in point is the fact that Morrell is said to be the inspiration for D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, a bawdy legacy far outdistancing Downton Ladies marrying the chauffer or having single sexual indiscretions.
Given the level of open-mindedness these friends purportedly shared, Virginia would have had an easy time accepting Lady Edith’s affair with Michael, her pregnancy and her desire to keep her child, even though it was born “out of wedlock.”
But it’s clear from Virginia’s diaries that there was an undercurrent of frustration with all of her relationships that would have gotten in the way of their new friendship, as socializing disrupted her creative process. You can hear the irritation in this entry in which she describes a weekend excursion to Ottoline’s: “Back from Garsington, & too unsettled to write—I meant to say read; but then this does not count as writing. It is to me like scratching; or, if it goes well, like having a bath—which of course, I did not get at Garsington.”
Her laments are similar to those of other dedicated novelists whose memoirs I’ve read, the amount of solitude and quiet required considered extreme for someone like Edith who is free to do her own socializing for the first time in her life. Marigold slowed her down a bit, of course, but the responsibility of a child kept her from matching the copious amount of reading Virginia accomplished when she felt well: “I want to read Byron’s Letters, but I must go on with La Princesse de Cléves,” she writes on February 18th. “This masterpiece has long been on my conscience. Me to talk of fiction & not to have read this classic! But reading classics is generally hard going. Especially classics like this one, which are classics because of their perfect taste, shapeliness, composure, artistry. Not a hair of its head is disheveled.”
The same could be said for the fashions and hairstyles of Downton this season, the sparkling headbands and hair clasps some of the smartest accessories I’ve ever seen. The fact that Edith is dressed to the nines in these fashions representing more modern times makes it all the more astounding that she is about to step into a role that will tie her resolutely to a dissolving past.
Lady Edith Doesn’t Stay in London
Had her character stayed on the path of publisher or if Michael had not disappeared and had married her, Edith would have been a brilliant member of the literary avant-garde that included Virginia and Lytton. By this last season, even Edith’s father, Lord Grantham makes this shocking statement as he’s discussing Edith’s prospects at the thought of a titled marriage: “With her magazine, she could be one of the most interesting women of the day.” Quite an about-face from his earlier objections to her journalistic leanings!
What a tease Fellowes is as he pens the dramatic turn for Edith, a reversal that inspired this riff on her experimentations in modernism during a time when Woolf is penning avant-garde novels like Jacob’s Room (1922) and Mrs. Dalloway (1925)—though neither is as experimental as she will go with Orlando, which will be published in 1928.
Virginia is living a life closer to the one Edith would have had if Michael had survived and married her—not in all facets of it, of course, but in the journalistic vein at least. I was so convinced that that Edith would turn out to be the most prepared for the new world the Edwardians were facing with a life in London when season six began that her turn of circumstances when Herbert (Bertie) Pelham took her back into the aristocratic fabric of the time left me floored.
Bertie is shown with her in her London flat (in the two images above) early on in their courtship, on one occasion rolling up his sleeves to help her put the first issue of her magazine, as editor, to bed. As Fellowes took their lives in 360-degree turnabouts, one of the questions he left unanswered is whether Edith gives up Michael’s legacy. Unless the rumors that a movie could be in the works are true, we will never know, as the season ends with her standing at the precipice between a new age and the fading gaiety of the Edwardian aristocracy. Given her new mother-in-law’s preference for the moral high ground, I doubt she would have been supported to be active in such a bohemian lifestyle that would put her in regular contact with the likes of the Bloomsbury Group.
In the end, it is neither here nor there, as I’ve made up the friendship anyway. It is the craft of writing that interests me the most about this exercise, and to that point, it is the fictive characters of Clarissa and Edith and their creators Woolf and Fellowes that I pay homage to with this entry. Mrs. Dalloway employs one of the most remarkable examples of the creative use of time for a novel of its era because it begins in the morning of an early June day in 1923 and ends the following morning at 3 a.m.—a timespan of fewer than 24 hours passing during the telling of the entire story, though there are flashbacks aplenty.
The same compression took Edith from potential social outcast to the Marchioness of Hexham in nine episodes that spanned the same number of months of her fictitious life—the happiest she has seen to date. You can bet I will watch the progression of her story again in order to learn from a talented writer now that I own all six seasons of the show on DVD. Deciding to support my local PBS station, WTCI, was never easier given I’d have these gems of storytelling in my movie library. It won’t be the last time I’ll support PBS and Masterpiece for the remarkable programming they produce and the phenomenal acting they facilitate—such as is shown in this summation of season six of Downton Abbey below:
In closing, I’d like to note how utterly jealous I am of my UK friends, as I haven’t been able to see or purchase DVDs of Life in Squares, a BBC Two series exploring the relationship between Woolf and her sister Vanessa Bell. It wasn’t airing the last time I was in London but I did take a bit of Woolf with me on that trip, learning more about her story as I had tea in Sloane Square one sunny April afternoon. I guess this will just have to suffice for now!
*Woolf’s diaries encompass many volumes, which can be cumbersome to get through. If you’d like a condensed version, I recommend what is closest to a crafted memoir, Moments of Being edited by Jeanne Schulkind.
The Diary of an Improvateur and this entry, I Met Virginia Woolf in This Room, © Saxon Henry, all rights reserved. Saxon is an author, poet and journalist whose books include Anywhere But Here, Stranded on the Road to Promise and Four Florida Moderns. She is also a contributor to Architizer.by