Downton Abbey is back in the States, showcasing the winds of change sweeping across upper class British society. The show becomes more flawed with each season, spinning out more and more outlandish plots in an attempt to keep itself relevant, resorting to tactics like rape as plot device, penile sparring between jealous men, and illicit babies. One plot this season, however, is of particular interest: The story of Edith Bunting (Daisy Lewis), the little schoolteacher that could.
We were introduced to Miss Bunting at a political rally at which she ran into Thomas Barrow (Allen Leech) and the two struck up a conversation after some initial reluctance on her part. She started popping up more and more frequently, and she’s finally reached recurring character status. As she recurs, though, the show seems conflicted about what to do with her, at times depicting her as a strong, independent woman who’s not afraid to speak her mind, push for social change, and challenge Thomas, and at others making her out as painfully, almost pathetically naïve.
The mixed treatment of Miss Bunting reflects some of the larger problems with the show, which still clings to a myth of the upper class that’s rather striking in its level of hero worship. Even as Downton Abbey documents social change at the time and depicts transitions from old norms and values to a new world, it’s still caught in the trap of believing that the upper classes are on some level better. There’s a faint sense of superiority in how other characters interact with her, and it’s not just about the show’s desire to depict the upper classes clinging to the old ways.
On the one hand, Edith Bunting is a powerful force for change. An avowed and vocal Socialist, she attends political rallies, participates in community events, and asks Thomas why he’s allowed himself to become effectively defanged at the Abbey. She highlights the fact that the once fiery man has been reduced to something like a pet — loved and viewed as a member of the family because he dresses like them and to a certain extent acts like them as well. His plans for moving to the U.S. seem to have been abandoned in favour of staying on at the estate to manage it, adopting the trappings of the worst parts of country life, in Bunting’s estimation.
As the acquaintance between the two deepens, we see Thomas starting to consider a shift back to his more radical ways thanks to her influence — and she seems more respectful, convinced that perhaps he’s not all he seemed when first they met. Rather than being a carbon copy of another spoiled country lordling, albeit one who came up from belowstairs and won’t ever quite belong, there’s more to him than that. Their relationship is one of more complexity, and the direction it’s headed is obvious to most viewers.
Meanwhile, she’s making waves at the Abbey as she shows up to tutor Daisy (Sophie McShera), offering her the opportunity to make concrete choices about her life by providing her with the education she was denied. Daisy’s education highlights shifting norms in British society at the time, the dissolution of the downstairs legacy of being engaged in intergenerational lives of service, a theme Julian Fellowes seems obsessed with, as it’s come up in other work. But it’s also a liberation for her, and it causes uproar belowstairs as many servants start to rethink their lives and roles.
In these senses, Bunting is a powerful force in the lives of those at Downton both above and belowstairs, bringing a new level of nuance and complication to the narrative for characters who’ve struggled with changing times. But here’s where things start to get complicated, and it starts with Lord Grantham’s (Hugh Bonneville) comment that he doesn’t want Thomas to return to his old ways; a moment when we heard Grantham engaged in a highly entertaining anachronism as he called Thomas a ‘hater.’
Grantham and Bunting argue viciously over the dinner table on multiple occasions as he challenges her politics, insults her beliefs, and belittles her, to the horror of other guests and his own family. It seems that the veneer of upper class manners and politeness vanishes when it comes to lower class guests — Grantham is clearly deeply offended that a schoolteacher should sit at his table and be served on the same level as his honoured guests, and he dislikes her role in Thomas’ life.
In these scenes, Grantham comes off as blustering, sharp, and cruel — we are meant, as viewers, to see Bunting as a vulnerable victim and to view Grantham as very much in the wrong. But there’s another layer here, as Bunting is also depicted with a certain about of naïveté, with ideals and politics that are very much presented as unsustainable. She’s shown almost like a girl playing with dolls who doesn’t fully understand the politics and beliefs she’s espousing, rather than as an adult empowered to make her own choices — let alone as an adult capable of doing, and understanding, her own research.
Thus, the show presents her in a state of peculiar imbalance. She’s not purely a fiery, independent woman with opinions she’s not afraid to voice. She’s also a naïve, silly schoolteacher who doesn’t really understand how the world works — and while we may view Grantham’s handling of discussions as hamhanded and extreme, as well as defensive of the wealth and power of the upper class, a wisp of something else creeps in there too.
Between the lines, the show asks the viewers whether she’s really all that politically and socially aware, challenging the very nature of socialism and suggesting that it’s an ineffective and ridiculous social model. Certainly Downton Abbey explores social change, and doesn’t always worship the class system, welcoming many of the social shifts that came with breakdowns in norms, but it’s not willing to go so far as to depict a socialist character with politics we can take seriously.