Downton Abbey -- The Wit, Wisdom and Heart of the Dowager Countess
No life appears rewarding if you think about it too much.— Lady Violet Grantham, the Dowager Countess, Downton Abbey
Downton Abbey, the award-winning series from Julian Fellowes, is a drama which focuses on the lives of the people who live and work in a great post-Edwardian English estate. The story began with the sinking of the Titanic. Since then we have witnessed the impact of the 1st World War, the introduction of the telephone and the radio, an unstable Parliament, and massive post-war unemployment and housing shortages. And now, in the final chapters, we see this magnificent estate and its inhabitants on the cusp of a vanishing way of life.
Highclere Castle, where Downton Abbey is filmed
Maggie Smith, as the dowager Countess Violet Grantham, is undeniably the highlight of each episode of Downton Abbey. Many fans delight in her biting wit and scathing one-liners. But there is much more to the countess than an acid tongue.
In a recent interview, Julian Fellowes revealed that the character of Violet Crawley, the Dowager Countess of Grantham, is loosely based on his great-aunt Isie. He described her as “a woman whose dry wit concealed a good deal of personal suffering and who was no tougher on the rest of us as she was on herself. It is perhaps that draconian sense of discipline that makes her breed seem admirable to me".
Numerous blogs, Facebook pages, and online chats have discussed the clever and biting comments delivered by Dame Maggie Smith as the Dowager Countess Violet Grantham. I could simply copy and paste those "zingers" into a Hub and check out. But the sum and substance of the character Violet Grantham is much more than a few cleverly chosen words.
“Everyone goes down the aisle with half the story hidden.”
Lady Mary: “I was only going to say Sybil that is entitled to her opinions.”
Countess Violet: “No, she isn’t, until she is married. And then her husband will tell her what her opinions are.”
“I was watching her the other night, when you spoke of your wedding. She looked like Juliet on awakening in the tomb.”
"Love is a far more dangerous motive than dislike."
“If she won’t say yes when he might be poor, he won’t want her when he will be rich.”
“It’s the job of grandmothers to interfere.”
“There can be too much truth in any relationship.”
Love and Marriage
In Season 5 we discovered that the Countess has a hidden past. In 1874 Violet visited Russia where, at the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg, she met Prince Igor Kuragin. The two fell madly in love and planned to run away together. They were about to leave on his yacht, but Kuragin's wife discovered the romance. She forced Violet off of the yacht and sent her back to her own husband in England.
So, we learn that the Dowager does indeed have a heart. She has known true love, passion, heartbreak, and loss. Perhaps that is why she is so fiercely protective of and supportive of her three granddaughters, all of whom have experienced their own trials and tragedies in romantic love and marriage. So from that perspective, one might say that there is more wisdom than bite in Violet’s commentary on relationships.
Fans of Downton Abbey have come to appreciate the relationship between Countess Violet and Isobel Crawley. What began as an apparent duel of words has blossomed into a deep mutual respect and admiration.
Of course, the two women come from very different circles—Violet is supremely aware of her class and social status. She represents the Old Britain of lavish aristocratic estates.
Isobel identifies more with the people who live outside of Downton. Her views are progressive—she champions women’s rights and the value of the middle and working classes.
The first meeting of Violet and Isobel occurred in the fourth episode of Season 1 with this exchange:
"You are quite wonderful, the way you see room for improvement wherever you look," Violet says to Isobel. "I never knew such reforming zeal."
Replies Isobel, "I take that as a compliment."
Violet turns her head slightly and murmurs, "I must have said it wrong."
Violet and Isobel
Violet: “Hope is a tease, designed to prevent us accepting reality."
Isobel: "Oh, you only say that to sound clever."
Violet: “I know. You should try it."
Isobel: It’s only me.
Violet: I always feel that greeting betrays such a lack of self worth.
Violet to Isobel “Why do you always have to pretend to be nicer than the rest of us?”
Violet to Isobel “I wonder your halo doesn’t grow heavy. It must be like wearing a tiara around the clock.”
Isobel: How you hate to be wrong.
Violet: I wouldn’t know, I’m not familiar with the sensation.
Since that first exchange the relationship of these two elegant ladies has been paved with many droll one-liners, but thankfully Julian Fellowes did not allow that to be the sum and substance of their fellowship. Both of them have known deep personal grief and loss and it is those shared feelings that have cemented their friendship.
Violet supported Isobel after the death of her son and only child Matthew. And Isobel was the one in whom Violet confided when, after decades, she was confronted once again with her lover Prince Kuragin.
The characters of Violet and Isobel provide so much more than comic relief. They are the older generation and their view of the future melded with their experience of the past helps the audience to see the unfolding events in a larger context.
Innovations and Americans
“First electricity, now telephones. Sometimes I feel as if I’m living in an H.G. Wells novel.”
“I couldn’t have electricity in the house. I couldn’t sleep a wink. All those vapors seeping about.”
(About the telephone) “Is this an instrument of communication or torture?”
“Things are different in America, they live in Wig Wams.”
Cora: “I hope I don’t hear sounds of a disagreement.”
Countess Violet: “Is that what they call discussion in New York?”
Cora: “I might send her over to visit my aunt. She could get to know New York.”
Countess Violet: “Oh, I don’t think things are quite that desperate.”
(Of daughter in-law Cora’s mother) Violet: "I'm so looking forward to seeing your mother again. When I'm with her I'm reminded of the virtues of the English."
Matthew: "Isn't she American?"
Progress and the People "Across the Pond"
Prior to the 19th century, the British aristocracy enjoyed a life and lifestyle relatively free from taxation. Labor costs were low and estates, encompassing several thousand acres, were self-sustaining.
However, several events, beginning in the mid-1800s, precipitated the decline of the British upper class system. The Third Reform Act of 1885 extended the right to vote to 60 percent of the population and with that vote came a revised legislature with no intent to preserve the nation’s heritage. The “ruling class” was no longer in power.
Death taxes and succession duties imposed severe penalties on not only estates and houses but the contents as well. Even jewelry was to be taxed—some items of greater value than the estate itself. All of this change was no doubt troubling to the Countess, conscious and protective of her social status and that of her class. She saw change as the enemy of the world in which she lived. It is no wonder then that she flinched at the advent of new innovations and the influence of American ways on her culture.
There is no doubt that Violet Grantham is extremely clever for an 80-year old. (Honestly, I’ve never been that sharp and never will be). Here are a few of her better quips:
- “I don’t dislike him, I just don’t like him. Which is quite different.”
- Sir Richard: “I’m leaving in the morning Lady Grantham. I doubt we’ll meet again.”
Countess Violet: “Do you promise?”
- “What is a weekend?”
- “Alas, I am beyond impropriety.”
- “I will applaud your discretion when you leave.”
- “I knew this family was approaching disillusion, I wasn’t aware that illusion was already upon us.”
- "No guest should be admitted without the date of their departure settled."
- "Nothing succeeds like excess."
- “Wasn’t there a masked ball in Paris when cholera broke out? Half the guests were dead before they left the ballroom.”
- “Don’t be defeatist, dear, it’s very middle class.”
- “I do hope I’m interrupting something.”
- “She’s so slight a real necklace would flatten her.”
- “The only poet peer I am familiar with is Lord Byron and I presume we all know how that ended.”
- “It is her fuel. I mean some people run on greed, lust, even love. She runs on indignation.”
- “Rosamind has no interest in French. If she wishes to be understood by a foreigner, she shouts.”
- “Switzerland has everything to offer, except perhaps conversation. And one can learn to live without that.”
- “Principles are like prayers. Noble of course. But awkward at a party.”
- “There’s nothing simpler than avoiding people you don’t like. Avoiding one’s friends, that’s the real test.”
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