Look! It’s an American Downton w/ similar issues
This week in strange connections I bring you: The Age of Innocence and Downton Abbey. Namely, Lavinia Swire as the successor to May Welland. When I first started reading Edith Wharton’s Pulitzer prize winner, I immediately thought: “ah! The American literature version of Downton Abbey!” Technically yes, though it takes place in the 1870s and servants are merely portrayed as that – servants. There I stopped at the comparisons….until I started watching the movie version on Netflix. It occurred to me (in the scene, which also appears in the book) where May tells Newland that they should put off being married, ESPECIALLY if he is in love with someone else. Now obviously the parallels between her and Lavinia are broad, but even if Lavinia hadn’t felt the urgency of telling Matthew the same thing on her deathbed, I feel she would have eventually told Matthew regardless: don’t marry me, clearly you love Mary and just feel honor bound to me.
I never hated May; I felt sorry for her. Her life with Newland was perfectly fine until the Countess Olenska came along. If she hadn’t, their relationship would probably have faced no peril (other than Newland’s dissatisfaction at her lack of interest in his interests). May, the picture of a gentle soul, is willing to give up Newland if he is in love with another woman (never mind the fact she is wrong about which woman). If Newland were to give up May in order to be with the Countess Olenska, he would be committing social suicide and that is one of the primary points of the novel. At that moment, even Newland cannot conceive of marrying anyone other than May. More so than honor, society dictated that it must be so. In this case I was more annoyed with Newland: maybe at this moment he was still confused but later in the novel he plans on leaving May (after they are married) and even fantasizes about her death.
Lavinia arrives to disrupt a relationship we were already invested in: Mary and Matthew. At the conclusion of season one, we knew there would be no easy sailing for these two but introducing a new love interest for him? Even the actress who played Lavinia was prepared to be hated. Throughout the course of second season we are given every reason to not hate Lavinia: Mary realizes that Matthew truly loves her, Mary even likes her! But that doesn’t stop Mary and Matthew from colliding back into each other’s arms. In this case (although I am not too familiar with this society) the social ramifications would have been significant but not suicidal if Mary and Matthew decided to leave their betrothed for each other. After Matthew’s injury, his honor forces him to break off his engagement with Lavinia but she comes back, ever so dutiful, giving up the idea of children in order to stay by his side. And this action even further entwines him to her, regardless of whether he is dancing with Mary and kissing her in full sight of Lavinia. When Lavinia is struck down by the Spanish flu, she urges Matthew to go to Mary. Of course, after she dies, instead of taking her advice, Matthew being Matthew, can never entertain the idea of being with Mary now. Sigh…Unlike The Age of Innocence, Matthew is more conflicted towards Lavinia (and doesn’t pray for her death unlike many viewers).
While The Age of Innocence is a true-to-reality telling, with no one really stuck in their ideal situation and all the heartbreak that that knowledge entails, Downton Abbey is purely dramaville. So many things led to the final moments but honestly I blame Mary’s aunt Rosemary for making her reject Matthew back in season one. Matthew thinks he is paralyzed–Lavinia forces him to take her back and be engaged–Matthew can walk!–Surprise, Lavinia sees Mary and Matthew kiss–Lavinia tells Matthew to be with Mary and then up and dies—now Matthew is a bitter old soul. Unnecessary drama, but heart wrenching none-the-less.