with Lynne and Leslie

Isobel Crawley, “Downton Abbey” and making friends with the world again

by SweetMidlife

I admit to being late to the Isobel Crawley Admiration Society. I’ve been watching “Downton Abbey” forever now, since a binge session of the first season a few New Year’s Eve’s ago, and I first considered Isobel, mother of heir Matthew Crawley, an insufferable boor and a big ol’ buttinsky.. I found that her need to change the world with her position (and with the richer Crawley’s money and, at one point, their house) was pushy, self-serving and really as imperious and presumptious as she accused the Downton Abbey folks of being.

(It was for the same reasons I never liked the universally beloved -except by me – Lady Sybil, whose interest in the less fortunate always seemed like a little girl playacting and slumming with the chauffeur. Her onscreen death was awful, yeah, but I don’t miss her. Then again, can’t stand Mary either. So I apparently am evil. As you were.)

However, the last season has made me fond of Isobel, and particularly of Penelope Wilton, the actress who plays her, mostly because of the beautifully sad and stoic way that Isobel has dealt with her son’s awful death in the closing moments of last season. I think you guys know about us losing our dad in 2012, the most profound loss of my life so far, and a thing that makes me want to sleep for a million years because there are so many more people I care about, and if losing them ever is gonna feel anything like that, I don’t wanna do it. I have acknowledged that I went through something akin to depression, is not actually depression, and went through some of the stages I recognize in the fictional Isobel.

For instance, we found Isobel in the beginning of the season as a hermit in her house, declining dinner invitations and letting her all-consuming grief trap her in stasis. In less-fancy words – she was stuck. I know what that’s like. I told someone the other day that I blamed my weight gain on grief, and in turn on my father, who would, I know, go “Nobody made you eat that much, Fatty. Put the cheese now and go running.” Honestly, his voice in my head telling me to suck it up and stop wallowing was incredibly helpful in, you know, kicking me out of the wallow. My favorite Shawn Colvin song, “If I Were Brave,” has a line that goes “You only get so long until you stop looking back/it’s like you’re waiting for Godot/and then you pick your sorry a** up off the street and go.”


Still, I don’t judge anyone for beginning to heal on their own terms, because it’s their business ultimately, but it helps to have a firm but gentle voice guiding them back to life. And so it rang true on the show that as the reliably self-absorbed Crawleys were like “Well, where’s she been?” it was the Dowager Countess who gets to be that firm, gentle voice, by just going to Isobel, sitting with her, and basically saying “Girl, you need to come back to us.” In the most recent episode shown on PBS, she told her “I hope you find a way to make friends with the world again.”

Boy did I relate to that, because it felt in someways that the world, and God, and cancer, and life, and possibly Jabba The Hutt and the Red Baron, was conspiring against me, and were not my friends. You feel cheated. I have things that Isobel didn’t have – a great partner, supportive family who shared my grief and were willing to share their feelings with me. And I felt I had a reason to snap out of it. Recently, Isobel had to deal with feelings of jealousy when daughter-in-law Mary, who had previously been as out of it as Isobel, started getting the attention of a gentleman caller, not only because Mary might one day move on from Matthew, which she felt, admittedly unfairly, was a betrayal, but because that meant that he was really gone and that the whole world might, one day, move on, too.

There are some things that are maddening about that show – Lady Grantham’s naive tendency to believe any old lie one of her servants tells her, kitchen maid Daisy’s moppiness and the fact that Mrs. Patmore has to put up with all the foolishness in her kitchen when she’s just trying to feed people. But this very realistic way in which Isobel has dealt not only with her grief but her honest feelings about the way others are grieving, has made me excited to keep watching this show. Making friends with the world is imperative, if we have to live here. We might as well.

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