“Some scenes may not be suitable for all audiences.” So begins?Episode 2, Season 4, of?Downton Abbey.
Since a costume drama is not my husband’s first choice in entertainment but he’s willing to watch it with me, I teased him that he might be rewarded with a bit of titillation — perhaps a love scene with a flash of bare breast?
But how wrong I was. ? ? ? ? ??SPOILER ALERT!
The warning applies to a scene of sexual violence, when Anna Bates, the lady’s maid, is accosted in the kitchen by a man named Green, the valet of a visitor to Downton.
Thankfully the attack and rape happen off-stage so we don’t witness the violence first-hand, but we see the effects on Anna. In subsequent episodes we see the effects on her marriage. Anna’s husband, Bates, doesn’t know what’s happened, but knows only that something drastic has come between him and his wife. She is suddenly cold to him. He blames himself.?Anna, for her part, is cold because she feels this violence has tainted her. She feels no longer good enough for her husband. The dialogue here is spare, and piercing. It’s painful to see a beloved character so traumatized.
To complicate things, Bates has some sort of violence hidden in his past, so Anna has reason to believe that he might kill the rapist if she tells what happened and who did it. She wouldn’t mind if vengeance was exacted, but she fears that her husband will be hanged for doing so. Even after she finally tells him what happened, she hides the identity of the rapist. In the complicated dance of gender and violence, Anna is protecting her husband from the violence of his reaction to the violence done to her own body.
As my twenty-something daughter says, “I have so many feels about this.” So do I.
Some people are upset at PBS and Julian Fellowes for this particular story line. Some say that a storyline about sexual violence is gratuitous, or unlikely, or soap opera-ish. To me it is none of these things. History tells us that sexual violence happens to a lot of women. Why shouldn’t it happen on Downton Abbey? A war breaks out, a young woman dies in childbirth, a young man is killed in a car wreck. The general category is crap that shouldn’t happen but does.
It’s a tragedy when a woman is raped, no matter which century such a crime happens. But in every century this crime does happen. What are it’s after-effects? In Downton Abbey, as in real life, these after-effects are potent, even on people who don’t know the secret. I find this to be particularly wrenching and true to life. Rape has the power to destroy a marriage, even when its kept secret. Perhaps especially when its kept secret.
Yet, in further episodes we see that the secret revealed continues a different sort of destructive path. Where can this end?
The great fiction writer Willa Cather once wrote:?There are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before; like the larks in this country, that have been singing the same five notes over for thousands of years.(Source:?O Pioneers!)
The story of sexual violence is not a pleasant refrain like a lark song. But it is a repeated human story. It?leaves a tremendously wide and powerful wake.
How does the experience of sexual violence shape a particular woman and a particular marriage and a particular household??This is why we watch.
My only comment to Mr. Fellowes might be this: I wish that the local parson had a larger role in the show. I would love to see a more overt inclusion of the life of faith in all the goings-on at Downton.
What do you think the parson would say? Would you like to write that dialogue? How might grace be at work here?