Downton Abbey, Lady Mary Crawley Biography, School Days

Lady Mary Crawley in Reflective Mood
Lady Mary Crawley in Reflective Mood

Mary Crawley's School Days - Background to Downton Abbey, Season 3

Downton Abbey, the award winning British TV Drama written by Julian Fellowes, is sumptuously filmed and scripted in the best traditions of British costume drama.

After two successful seasons, fans around the world are waiting with bated breath to find out what happens in Series 4.

Downton Abbey has obviously captured the imagination of the global TV audience. Why is this? The show is hardly innovative or ground breaking.

Could it be the fabulous costumes, sets and settings? Or is it more about excellent story telling and writing coupled with great acting?

While some may criticise the show for a lack of historical accuracy or clique ridden plots, you could equally apply these arguments to Charles Dickens or Jane Austin and they have done well enough.

Arguably the Downton characters are often better drawn than those invented by many successful, popular novelists.

Lady Mary Crawley and her Perfect Eybrows
Lady Mary Crawley and her Perfect Eybrows

There is something about Mary

Lady Mary is decidedly posh, beautiful and an ice queen. She is also snobbish, sometimes a little cruel yet on other occasions compassionate and honourable. This makes her arguably one of the most intriguing and contradictory characters in the Downton stable.

The success of her character is due in no small part to Michelle Dockery’s considerable skills as an actor and her magnificent eye brows. We see Lady Mary, week after week, coping with so many complex and sometimes contradictory traits yet, throughout, Ms Dockery makes Mary both highly watchable and totally credible.

Interestingly, there is no book to draw upon for inspiration. Mary’s character is therefore being created episode by episode and presumably Ms Dockery has to adapt to the character as the scripts appear.

For those of you who don’t yet know Downton, Lady Mary is the oldest of three daughters of the Earl and Countess of Grantham, the owners of Downton Abbey. Mary is incredibly attractive, in an understated way, with her somewhat icy good looks and a deep, resonant voice that can be either coldly dismissive or highly seductive depending upon her mood and who she is with.

Matthew and Mary Season 2 Christmas Special - the Kiss
Matthew and Mary Season 2 Christmas Special - the Kiss

Mary, The Early Years

For a reminder of Mary's story so far in Downton Abbey (Series 1 and 2), read the a potted biographies to the right.

So what of Mary before the TV drama? What is her back history? Well, Mary was born in 1892, the eldest daughter of Robert and Cora Crawley (You can read more about their past and how they met here).

  • Season 1 ran from 1912 - 1914 (Mary was therefore 20 when we first met her).
  • Season 2 ran from 1916 - 1920
  • Season 3 takes us through to about 1922 when Mary will be 30.

So what was Mary's upbringing like and what made the 20 year old woman we see in season 1? Mary probably inherited her English sense of upper class snobbery as well as her reserved nature from her father, Robert while her feisty, independent side almost certainly came from her American mother, Cora.

The other big influence on Mary was her schooling.

Mary in Downton Season 1 (1912 - 1914)

  • Our first encounter with Mary shows her annoyed at having to wear black after her fiancé’s death on the Titanic. Presumably black isn’t her colour.
  • Later, we find her getting increasingly desperate to find a suitable wealthy, titled husband.
  • She then displays a completely different side to her character by allowing a visiting Turkish Diplomat Kemal Pamuk into her bed.
  • We are left wondering if she is really so calculating and cold or is she passionate, spontaneous, letting her sexual appetites rule her head?
  • Clearly there is no love lost between Edith and Mary. Mary effortlessly seduces Edith’s suiter, Sir Anthony Strallan so that he fails to propose to Edith.
  • However, the real love interest in season 1 is between Lady Mary and Matthew Crawley. Matthew is a distant cousin who suddenly becomes the heir to Downton.
  • Initial attempts to marry off Mary to Matthew fail because the pair don't hit it off at all but as time passes they are increasingly attracted to each other and Matthew proposes to Mary in Episode 6. However, she declines him because of the turkish delight scandal.
  • By the end of the season Mary decides she wants to marry Matthew regardless but he doubts her motives in accepting him and turns her down.

Lady Mary Crawley about to Board a Train
Lady Mary Crawley about to Board a Train

Mary at School

At first Lord Robert Grantham was unsure of the value of sending his eldest daughter to a private boarding school, if only because he liked having her at home.

Cora was quick to point out, however, that she herself had benefited hugely from being sent away and Mary shouldn't be denied the opportunity of a proper education.

"Times are changing Robert," she said sternly. "Mary is smart and needs to be equipped for the future. Learning by rote from an antiquated governess here at Downton won't equip her for the modern world."

At first, Cora was determined to dispatch Mary to New England for a 'proper American education' but the couple compromised with Mary being sent south to Buckinghamshire Ladies College.

Mary settled in well at the College. No nighttime tears. She was popular with staff and pupils. However, Lady Mary didn't suffer fools gladly and could be cruel to those who crossed her.

Witness the case of poor Jane Hemmings who referred to Mary as 'Creepy Crawley' based in part on Mary's popularity with their English teacher, Miss Moffett with whom Jane had an unrequited crush.

Mary endured Jane's barbs without comment for 2 days. That night, Jane screams woke, not only her dormitory, but half of the the school. Jane's bed was found to be inhabited by a wide range of insects including spiders, woodlice and worst of all, slugs and worms.

Jane was so traumatised that she had to be sent home. Mary was tight-lipped about the whole incident but her classmates soon put two and two together and associated the incident with Mary's new nickname. The name 'Creepy Crawley' was never uttered again.

Then there was Alice Fitt-Casey who started making derogatory comments about Mary's mother Cora. She called her amongst other things, a 'common, brash yank'. So Mary posted a letter. Three weeks later Alice (in floods of tears) was removed from the school by her parents. Perhaps just a coincidence? Anyway, from that day on, no one else crossed Mary at school.

Mary in Downton Season 2 (1916 - 1920)

  • Matthew, he who was totally paralysed in the war but was mysteriously restored to health, danced with then snogged the delicious Mary; a lady with oodles of passion hidden beneath her cold exterior and pale complexion.
  • Unfortunately, the passionate kiss was observed by poor Lavinia, as she walked down the stairs, who then died of a broken heart (plus the Spanish flu).
  • Mary, ashamed of what she sees as her part in Lavinia’s death, she once again ignores her true feelings and vows to marry her grasping, manipulative fiancé Sir Richard Carlisle.
  • The Christmas special reveals Sir Richard and Mary’s relationship crumbling. Richard demands she sets a date or else he will reveal her ‘Turkish delight’ scandal to the world via his newspaper empire.
  • Mary and Lord Grantham decide she should not marry Sir Richard but move to America to escape the worst of the scandal. Matthew and Richard have a punch up and Richard is sent packing.
  • Mary now only has eyes for Matthew and they dance together at the servant’s ball.
  • Outside, in the snow, Mary confesses all to Matthew. Matthew says there is nothing to forgive and proposes to Mary, kneeling in the snow.
  • Their passionate kiss makes a perfect end to the Christmas Special; that and knowing that Mary and Matthew are finally engaged.

Mary and Matthew in season 3
Mary and Matthew in season 3

Lady Mary, Quite Contrary, How Does Your Garden Grow?

Mary's form mistress considered her very bright, coldly efficient but sometimes intolerant of the rest of the class. She wrote on Mary's report, "Mary considers herself above almost everyone including most of the staff".

In spite of her in built sense of superiority, Mary remained highly thought of by the school. She had a reputation as a great sportswoman and a skilled rider. When in the sixth form she captained the Lacrosse team and also became Head of House.

However, her contrary character was revealed when a teacher, with a strong Yorkshire accent, remarked that she was surprised to find that Mary, like her came from Yorkshire. Mary said dismissively, " Why would you know? Just because I live there I don't need to sound like you, do I?"

Yet it was Mary who made a point of befriending Rosa, a gypsy refugee from Eastern Europe, sent to the school by a charity, who was being bullied by a group of girls. Mary's patronage ensured the bullying quickly stopped. The ringleader then disappeared from the school and was never seen again.

Mary also surprised her form teacher by volunteering to help in the school gardens. Mary said by way of explanation, "I miss the grounds at Downton Abbey." The head gardener at the school would have nothing said against her and remarked how kind she was to him and his staff and insisted she was never overbearing or 'high and mighty'.

An intriguing incident happened during Mary's final year at the college. She was on a school trip to the Dordogne and a group of fellow sixth formers started secretly meeting some local French boys outside the chateau, where they were staying, in the evenings. The girls pleaded with Mary to join them in their flirtations but Mary was having none of it.

One of the girls, Elizabeth, then boasted that she had agreed to meet the most attractive boy alone and he would take her out. The girls all gossiped endlessly about this and Mary became quite annoyed. That evening the boy didn't show up and Mary was nowhere to be seen.

After they returned to Buckingham College, the Head of French had a private conversation with Mary's form mistress. "I checked the dormitory at about midnight and all the girls were asleep except Mary. Mary's bed hadn't been slept in. I checked again at 3.00am and Mary was back in bed fast asleep."

"I challenged Mary the next day and she was totally open about it. She was so annoyed with Elizabeth that she, Mary, had located the boy and persuaded him to take her out instead. She wasn't particularly attracted to him, she just wanted to demonstrate to the other girls she could win him if she wanted."

"I think Lady Mary is one of the most competitive girls I've ever come across," said her form teacher, "but do you think anything happened? Should we inform her parents?"

"I don't think that will be necessary. Mary gave a detailed account and was totally honest. One thing about Mary she doesn't lie. The boy tried it on but Mary firmly put him in his place. I did warn her how dangerous what she did was and the risk of scandal and she completely agreed."

"But who would have thought it of Mary?" said the French mistress."

"I've been looking after Mary for a long time now and nothing Mary might do would totally surprise me," said her form teacher, reflectively.

Lady Mary Crawley Enjoying the Fresh Air
Lady Mary Crawley Enjoying the Fresh Air

Series 3, Downton Abbey

Well what happens to Mary next in season 3? The smart money was on her marrying Matthew within a couple of episodes. However, I favoured the alternative plot where she marries Sir Richard and Matthew then rescues her from the altar, after the vows and, with the help of Carson, escapes with Mary on an Omnibus.

Unfortunately, the production company opted for a (predictable) wedding at the end of episode 1. still, it won't all be plain sailing and Mary will put Matthew in his place when he fails to meet her high standards and family loyalty will become a big issue between them.

So far we are seeing more of 'bad' Mary this season. Bad Mary is a snob, obsessed with hanging on to Downton at any cost and expects poor Matthew to submit to her outdated values. Here is hoping for more 'nice' Mary who is kind to servants and embraces good causes!

For those of you outside the UK, I'm sorry to say that you'll have to wait until January 2013 to see what Mary does next!

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