As VisionTV continues its back-to-back airings of Downton Abbey’s first three seasons, we’re looking back on the paths that the period drama’s most captivating characters have charted over the years, as well as the recent movements of the actors who bring them to life. Making our way through the Crawley family, we’ve revisited two generations and two of the young women upon whose shoulders the fate of the titular estate has rested. This week, after exploring the impacts made by both ladies Mary and Sybil (and their respective husbands) we’re turning the focus to the Crawleys’ oft-forgotten middle sister, Lady Edith. Although she’s endured years of being overshadowed by her two striking and outspoken siblings, Edith Crawley has plenty of qualities to recommend her – even when most people aren’t paying attention.
When we first met Lady Edith, the opinionated and informed, but chronically undervalued second child of the Crawley household was easy to dismiss as either a nuisance or an object of pity (depending on who you asked). Alternating between the roles of verbal punching bag to her older sister Mary, and guilty afterthought to her preoccupied parents, poor Edith seemed destined to remain in a middle-child no-man’s land while her sisters took their pick of suitors and social opportunities. Even when she retaliated to her sister’s barbs – most notably in her move to expose Lady Mary’s scandalous affair with Kamal Pamuk – Edith didn’t even seem capable of capturing her family’s attention for long.
That began to change in the show’s second season, as we started to get a taste of her talent for turning a phrase and her ability to quietly shoulder responsibility. Proving that Sybil wasn’t the only one who could be of practical use during the war, Edith was the first member of her family to learn to drive, and when Downton was temporarily repurposed as a convalescent ward, she was similarly up to the task of assisting with its day-to-day operation. However, despite her efforts, years of playing second (or third) fiddle had conditioned Edith to working with little praise from her family, and it took the outsider’s perspective of a visiting general to alert the rest of the Crawleys to her helpfulness.
Unfortunately for Edith, good luck rarely seems to be on her side for long. When she and her longtime admirer, Sir Anthony Strallan, finally became engaged, it looked as though she might finally be able to look forward to a far happier life than her family may have predicted for her. Sir Anthony’s inability to follow through with the wedding was yet another blow against the hapless middle sister, but in the aftermath of that betrayal hid an unforeseen opportunity for Edith. With the potential for an exciting career – one that capitalizes on her way with words and interest in current affairs – and the potential for new (and, this time, requited) love interest, the next season of Downton Abbey will offer plenty of new experiences for the Crawley sister only now coming into her own.
Meanwhile, for Lady Edith’s off-screen counterpart, Laura Carmichael, art, in many ways, has imitated life (or perhaps the other way around). Despite the less-than-warm relationship shared between ladies Mary and Edith, Carmichael and actress Michelle Dockery share a far more sisterly relationship in real life than they do on the show. And Edith’s latest foray into new territory is mirrored by Carmichael’s recent career moves, as she begins to build a resumé of performances on the big screen to accompany her breakout work on Downton.
After playing a small role in the 2011 Cold War espionage film Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Carmichael’s most recent project is the recently wrapped Madame Bovary. We can look forward to seeing her in the role of Henrietta in theatres later this year, opposite Mia Waskikowska and Paul Giamatti in the latest rendition of Flaubert’s classic tale of ruinous romanticism. With a high profile appearance on the horizon, and an increasingly forceful presence on Downton Abbey to look forward to, we’re excited to see how Carmichael continues to forge her identity, both onscreen and off.
– Kate Shepherd