Downton Abbey has one of the best casts of female characters I have ever seen. These complicated, compelling women are not always likeable, but they are engaging, and achingly, painfully realistic.
Unfortunately, in Season Two, the writers dropped the ball with new addition Lavinia Swire. Introduced as Matthew Crawley’s new fiancee, Lavinia is immediately thrown into the cliche, hate-infested waters of TV’s “other woman” — she is the obstacle to the union of fan favorite couple, Mary and Matthew.
Despite the instant problems with her introduction, Lavinia is a character with a lot of potential. She avoids many of the cliches we might expect, and is, on the whole, a likeable, genuine character. However, as the season comes to a close, her presentation becomes deeply problematic, as she turns into little more than a sacrifice to the Great Romance of Matthew and Mary.
Lavinia Swire has a lot to recommend her as a character. Compared to the manipulative, pragmatic and selfish nature of many of Downton’s main cast, she is positively a saint. She has a quiet dignity about her, and a sweetness that is difficult to dislike. Far from being the wicked, manipulative rival, she befriends Mary, and her strength and determination through Matthew’s recovery are admirable. The show even hints at an interesting backstory, as Lavinia uncovers a political scandal to save her father from debt. The story shows that she has great initiative and tenacity, and that she is willing to fight for the people she loves.
But there are two key phrases in all this: “hinted at” and “saint.” Lavinia’s backstory is never fully explored, and she devotes most of her on-screen time to Matthew, being selfless and kind. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with being a good and sweet, but in the final episode of the season, the writers take it too far, raising her passivity and selflessness to levels that are an insult to the character they have created.
When Lavinia sees Matthew kissing Mary, she offers to step aside, so that he can marry the woman he truly loves. So far, so good. Who wants to marry a man who loves someone else, and will only be with you out of a sense of obligation?
And then she dies, all of a sudden, from Spanish flu, and spends her last breath begging Matthew to marry Mary and be happy. “It’s better this way,” she says. Better if she’s out of the way, if she steps aside in the most permanent way possible so that true love can prevail. And her utter selflessness, her forgiving attitude as she dies, is treated as a virtue, rather than as something problematic. She ceases to be an individual woman in her own right, and abandons all sense of self to become the good, selfless martyr. Everything about her life, every thought she has before she dies, is about others, and how they will be better off without her.
She is, ultimately, playing a part in a Victorian sentimental novel, when the sweet young girl dies to teach everyone else how to live better, spending her last breath making people promise to live their lives in the right way. It’s the tragic version of the “manic pixie dreamgirl,” in the true sense of the trope — a woman whose actions, whose whole life (and death), are for the benefit and development of others.
Although the writers sidestepped the usual cliches we see on television, her selfless martyrdom falls into another kind of harmful cliche about the “rival woman.” It’s a strange reincarnation of the virgin/whore complex — she must be either completely unsympathetic and wicked, or too good to be true. Anything in between would be too lifelike, too realistic, and so muddy the waters when she is inevitably cast aside in order for Matthew and Mary to reunite. If her death is all about her, or if she (god forbid) lives to forgive Matthew and move on, things get complicated, and Matthew and Mary might become less easily sympathetic as a result. If, however, she dies with the words “be happy” on her lips, the writers can both use her as a device to keep Matthew and Mary apart, and then dispose of her to allow the couple (after the required drama) to come together again without any lasting guilt or scars.
In the end, Lavinia Swire is little more than a plot device, a cipher thrown in by the writers to further the plotlines of others. This is particularly disappointing from a show that usually treats it female characters so well, and with a character who, if developed properly, could have been as intriguing and interesting as the rest of the cast.