Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone etc etc. On Sunday night, the unthinkable happened. Julian Fellowes (creator of Downton Abbey, the most gloriously silly period drama ever to grace our screens) mercilessly took the life of its most feminist character, Sybil Branson, nee Crawley.
The cry as Sybil took her final breath and left her husband and newborn child to go on without her was heard across the country. Twitter exploded. Three days later, many are still in mourning. “I’m still in a right state over #Sybil” Victoria Finan, UEAFS member, tweeted – “had another little cry earlier.”
For those of you wondering what all the fuss is about, I suggest you watch Downton Abbey. It seems unlikely that a Period Drama, which must by its very nature hark back to the glory days of a ruling class of white men, could possibly be in any way feminist. And yet the female characters of this show kick the arse of every male in it. While the men are chasing their own coat-tails, tying themselves up in knots of “honour” and “duty”, the women are pursuing their own lovers, securing their own dowries and fighting for their own suffrage. The women deliver all the wittiest lines and pull the mens’ socks up before the whole estate crumbles into the ground.
And Sybil was at the forefront of these battles. Sybil, who got her dressmaker to stitch her a pair of trousers without her family’s permission, who was knocked unconscious at a socialist rally, who trained to be a nurse during World War One and who gave up her fortune to marry the chauffeur… Sybil was an unmissable critique of the patriarchal period, the one constantly reminding viewers that there was more for young ladies to be concerned with at the turn of the century than just who they should marry. Her marriage to the Irish socialist revolutionary Branson was a clear sign that women’s liberation was tied with that of the working class – Branson wants to burn Downton Abbey to the ground, while all his in laws are battling to save it.
The plots of the show were becoming increasingly ridiculous, but Downton Abbey never lost its humanity, an aspect of the show that always overtook without eclipsing its politics. Branson wants to see an end of the nobility, but at the same time he knows his in-laws are people too and wouldn’t want to see them hurt. For Fellowes, the personal is the political, and every character-driven storyline could make you laugh and weep.
And yet for all its insanity, I never thought it would come to this. Perhaps I should withhold my judgement and wait to see how the series plays out, but I have to say it – Julian Fellowes has shown his true Tory colours and fridged my Sybil. For those of you who don’t know about the “Women in Refridgerators” trope, it is where a main, well-developed female character is killed off for the sake of the character development of her male counterparts. (Here is a great Feminist Frequency vid to explain further) Death by childbirth is a crafty way of doing this – leaving her husband with a newborn baby and her father with a shedfull of guilt at not trusting the doctor is a great way to develop their characters. And though many women do die in Childbirth, particularly in 1920, it doesn’t stop this death being no more than a random and brutal plot device.
We can only hope that Lady Edith, a developing political writer and probable spinster, will be able to fill her younger sister’s feminist shoes. Until this happens, I will be mourning Sybil Branson, our fallen sister. Dying at the age of twenty-four when only women over twenty-five were awarded suffrage, she never even got a chance to vote.