This post contains spoilers for all aired episodes of season three.
Mary Crawley is a bitch. And I love her for it.
Over the past day or so, I’ve seen some criticism of Mary floating around, based on her behavior in the new season of DowntonAbbey. In particular, the way that she refuses to accept that they may be forced to sell the estate and move into a smaller house.
But I think this “bitchiness” is one of Mary’s greatest strengths. Mary Crawley is, for better or worse, a flawed character. She is proud, and she can be petty and vindictive when it pleases her (although always with a dignified air). Yet she is also a perfect example of a young “strong female character” (as much as I hate the phrase) who fits into her era. She is strong and compelling without being a radical, like Sybil, or simply a modern girl completely out of time. And she is willing to fight for what should be hers.
“The world is changing,” Mary tells her mother, as they discuss her fast-fading chances of keeping her mother’s inheritance in the show’s first season. “Not that much,” Cora replies. “And not fast enough for you.”
Mary is a modern girl, by the standards of Downton’s era. She sees the complete injustice of the fact that not only the estate of Downton, but also her mother’s entire inheritance, must go to a distant relative instead of her, simply because she was born a woman. She sees her entire life laid out in front of her as a duty, where she will never really be happy — she must look out for practical concerns, and she will be passed to whichever man she needs to entice to keep the estate in the immediate family. The future of Downton is set out as the purpose of her entire life, and it’s something that she must fight and make sacrifices for, every step of the way.
And, repeatedly, she finds that her father is not willing to fight for her rights. He quickly favors Matthew once he arrives on the scene in the first season, and now he gambles the money away and then shrugs his shoulders in self-loathing defeat. Mary has to fight every step of the battle herself, and she has to do it in a “lady-like” manner, with smiles and displays and manipulations.
No wonder she’s what some people might call a “bitch.” It’s that or be a sweet, darling pushover.
Although Mary puts on a show of great pride, and is almost always dignified and practical, she is far from cold or arrogant. She repeatedly shows affection and concern for others, including for the servants. Despite the fact that the Turkish ambassador Pamuk essentially rapes Mary (he sneaks into her bedroom at night, ignores her protests and warns her that she can’t scream for help without her reputation being ruined), she, with the sensibilities of her time (and, sadly, ours), feels guilty for not protesting more, for allowing herself to “fall.” And she will take whatever course is necessary to protect her family from the fallout and ensure that she has some kind of future — even if it means marrying a man she despises.
She may be kind to others and rather self-loathing at times, but she is also pragmatic, and she is a fighter. So when she finally gets the happiness she thought she could never have, marries a man she loves and secures Downton for her family, only to find out that Downton is lost and that her new husband will not use his resources to save it… well, she is going to be less than happy. Once again, the men in her life seem unwilling to fight the way that she has fought. So she will make her opinions known. She will refuse to take criticisms for the actions she must take. And she will team up with the other women in her family to fight again for her inheritance and for the tradition she has been tasked with keeping alive.