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Thoughts on Sybil Crawley

Sybil’s death represents everything that is good and everything that is bad about the representation of women in Downton Abbey. It is a hard-hitting, gut-wrenching indictment of society’s tendency to dismiss women’s opinions and expertise, even about their own bodies.

It also continues the tendency for Sybil’s plotlines to be about anyone but Sybil herself.

Throughout this episode, and the one the follows, we see men (especially Lord Grantham) asserting that They Know Best and trying to protect women from their realities of their own biology. They flinch away from discussing medical facts in front of women, even though women are the ones who actually live them. Cora’s input, as a woman who has given birth three times, is completely dismissed. And although Sybil later becomes delusional, no one ever considers asking her what she wishes to do or filling her in on Dr Clarkson’s early concerns.

And, as a result, Sybil ends up dead. She has no chance to fight for her life, or make any decisions about her own health. She isn’t even aware that anything might be wrong until the end. She dies, in part, because women’s opinions are dismissed by men, even concerning their own bodies.

In the current political climate, this is a powerful message. Women’s health is important, and women must be listened to on these matters. They must have a say, and should not be “protected” from themselves or the facts of their own bodies.

Yet Sybil’s death also made me quite uncomfortable. In the context of the show, her death will also have a lasting impact on all the characters around her and their relationships with each other. And although this is powerful in a narrative sense, it reflects a problem I’ve had with Sybil’s character for a while: she was no longer a character in her own right. She died as she lived, as a note in someone else’s story.

In season one, Sybil was the heart of the show, the girl who saw the goodness in everybody and pushed for greater goodness in the world. She also had strong opinions of her own, and she was willing to fight for her right to express them. But since then, her character, her revolutionary ideas, have been completely absorbed by Branson’s. Due in part to some bad writing, she seemed to fall in love with him simply because he kept insisting that she should. Her political activism, her work as a nurse, all faded away, and she became an accessory to his political concerns, someone who “disappoints” him when she tries to convince him to be a little politer, a little less aggressive to her family.

In my eyes, Sybil, as a fully-fledged character in her own right, was already dead. She had been replaced by a plot tool, a tie between Branson (and his revolutionary ideas) and the traditional world of Downton, especially Lord Grantham. She was a catalyst for other characters’ struggles. She didn’t die, as Lavinia did, because the story needed her out of the way. She died because that was the best and final way she could fulfil her role of making plot happen for others.

Sybil dies because the men will not listen to women, because the titled and fashionable will not listen to their “lessers”… she dies as the pawn in the middle of a wider message, one that rocks Cora and Robert’s relationship, one that (I assume) will affect Mary and Edith’s attitude to life, and one that, once again, will be used to add complications and development to Branson’s story. Will he stay or go? How will his Catholic beliefs clash with the family? How will his revolutionary ideas be affected by her death?

Of course, all TV deaths eventually focus on the impact on other characters. It is only natural. But it also seems an inevitable and saddening end to a once vibrant, challenging character. After the end of the first season, Sybil was always a part of other characters’ plots, and never a part of her own.

Rhiannon

Rhiannon Thomas is the author of A WICKED THING and KINGDOM OF ASHES. She lives in York, England.

3 thoughts on “Thoughts on Sybil Crawley

  1. Hello Rhiannon, I completely agree with everything you wrote in your post! This plot line of Sybil dying in childbirth simply reinforced to me the disempowerment (and lack of control) that her character has been inflicted with since season 2. In the first season, which was far more character driven than the following two, Sybil was the strong feminist who attended rallies and wore colourful (subversive) balloon pants. Things changed in season 2 when she fell in love with Tom and she quickly became obedient to him. It’s a real shame. Sybil’s feminist opinions were completely ignored in season 3. Strangley, the role of feminist was talken up by Edith who writes a letter to a newspaper about how women should get the vote…it would seem that there is only room enough for one feminist in the spatious grounds of Downton Abbey. The most frustraing thing, I found, about this season was in the very first episode when Sybil returns to DA. After giving up her home, fortune, and independence, she moves to Ireland to live in her husband’s home country (of course, the importance of the man’s needs seems to trumph those of the woman’s). Despite all of her sacrifises, Tom gets upset when she simply suggests that he changes his jacket to better fit in with and please her family. I would have found this portrayal of female subservience to be uncormfotable viewing if it was any woman but the fact that it was the once-feminist Sybil really irritated me. I haven’t yet finished watching season 3 of DA, though I must confess that so far it does not appear very promising.

  2. Sybil,
    This is typical for her time. Sybil took Branson’s dreams as her own. Many young women do this and I don’t find it unusual. She is typical for the time period. I real reason she died however is to build a career in Hollywood.

  3. I didn’t like her romance with Branson either, his confidence of knowing Sybil’s feelings more than herself (which I have always found patronizing), his selfishness when expecting Sybil to sacrifice everything for him (while he wouldn’t even wear a smoking for her sake). I deplored when she decided to give in, I even felt sorry for her promising opportunities coming from being a star of her first ball. She could at least pick an intellectual gentleman, and / or a weak willed one to assert herself through.

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