By Alexandra Goodwin

“You are a woman with a brain and reasonable ability. Stop whining and find something to do.”
Violet Crawley, Season 3, Episode 4

These wise words come from Violet Crawley, the matriarch of the Crawley family and the Downton Abbey estate. She takes no nonsense, and plays no fool. Her courage and genius influences all who cross her path, most especially her granddaughters Mary, Edith, and Sybil.

Their story takes place in England at the height of the Roarin’ Twenties. The Downton Abbey household (including the entire Crawley family and an extensive staff) are pulled through the decade in an avalanche of hope, misery, love, and misunderstanding, all while the world around them underwent tremendous social change. Women wanted the vote, the telephone and gramophone were changing communication, and the war put everyone on edge.

Being a part of elite British society isn’t all fun and games, especially when the culture of wealth and tradition comes up against a social upheaval. and the Crawley sisters prove that money and influence are not all that it takes to be a strong woman.

Violet Crawley: The Dowager Countess

Claims to Fame: Not letting anyone trick her, realizing (and yielding to) the improvements of the modern age

Violet Crawley, Downton Abbey Wiki

The Dowager Countess Grantham is known for her disdain for Americans, wise character, no-nonsense, and witty one-liners. However, at the heart of her many zingers is her desire to preserve the family honor.

As the oldest living member of the Crawley family, Violet feels the responsibility of keeping the family together and retaining possession of the Grantham estate. She does not shy away from saying exactly what she thinks, even if that means offending her guests. She is a confidante and role model to Mary Crawley, her spirited and somewhat entitled granddaughter, who also feels the weight of maintaining the family name. Violet cares for those around her, but will not let sentiment get in the way of business.

Mary Crawley Talbot: The Lady

Claims to Fame: Keeping the family and estate together, and later taking on the responsibilities of estate agent (a man’s job!)

Mary Talbot, Downton Abbey Wiki

Lady Mary Crawley is the oldest daughter of Lord Grantham (or Robert Crawley, Violet’s son), and spends much of her young adulthood trying to understand why she is unable to inherit the Downton estate. Since the family has no sons, the entail, or inheritance, will pass to a distant male cousin instead.

After fumbling through this troublesome time, and later falling in love with said cousin and marrying him (erasing her main trouble), Mary becomes a formal player in the future of Downton. Not only does she bear a son to carry on the family tradition, but she begins to partner with the estate’s agent to carry out business affairs. It turns out that being in an aristocratic family is not all fancy parties with important guests! She checks in on the renters, learns how the estate makes money, and helps manage the business side of the estate. The role of agent usually belongs to a man, and isn’t a family member. Mary is both and keeps Downton in tip-top shape.

Edith Crawley Pelham: The Outcast

Claims to Fame: Being a working woman when she can afford not to be, and raising her daughter as a single mother

Edith Pelham, Downton Abbey Wiki

Edith Crawley is the middle sister and has her work cut out for her. For much of the series, Edith struggles to find her purpose in her family and for herself. She is quite unlikeable, self-centered, and immature for the first several seasons, especially when compared to a headstrong Mary and loveable Sybil. She is desperate to be loved and appreciated, resulting in several unfortunate incidents with men, including a botched wedding ceremony, an illegitimate child with another man who is later killed, and an affair with a tenant farmer. Edith chases after other men in a way that disgusts Mary in particular, who would never bend to the will of a man for attention.

Nevertheless, Edith’s tragic history forces her to create a life that she can be a part of, one that does not hinge on being in a wealthy family or having little success with men. Amidst her confusion, she begins writing for a local newspaper and accepts a job there. Although working outside of charitable organizations or the estate creates a rift in the family, ultimately, her job is what gives her purpose. She does not have to rely on anybody for her happiness, but instead, chooses to find it for herself.

Sybil Crawley Branson: The Rebel

Claims to Fame: Becoming a home front nurse in WWI, and eloping with the family car driver)

The most rash of the Crawley sisters, and probably the most beloved, is Sybil, the youngest sister and the rebel of the family. Unhappy with the way of life she is expected to lead as the daughter of an aristocrat, Sybil throws herself into every charitable cause she can think of.

Sybil Branson, Downton Abbey Wiki

She has a heart for helping people, and is especially passionate about nursing wounded soldiers in WWI. Downton even turns into a convalescent home for a time, and Sybil is at the ready with aid for the recovering men. She secretly helps a family maid named Gwen get a job as a secretary (and out of service work) by distracting her father, and is the first woman in the family to wear pants in her day outfit!

But besides all of her supportive endeavors, Sybil is probably most famous for running away with the family’s car driver to Ireland. The family is so angry that no one attends her wedding. Her husband is an Irish Socialist, meaning they are poor, and their living conditions are often dangerous due to the impending Irish Civil War. Eventually fleeing Ireland and returning to Downton, Sybil dies in childbirth. However, her mark on the family is such that they accept her husband and daughter into the family, and her husband later plays a critical role in the management of the estate. Later, the maid Gwen returns to Downton as a guest, and the family finds out just how kindhearted Sybil was, even when her ideas didn’t always align with theirs.

Every family has a story to tell, and every person has a role to play. Strength is found in unexpected places, and, as shown with the Crawley women, often comes to light only in the face of adversity. Their stories can teach women today that they are strong, even if their circumstances make it seem like they are not. There are always ways to grow, even if the path is uncertain. Everyone’s story is in the middle of being written. Once you get to the end, you’ll see just how strong you are.

Alexandra Goodwin is a student intern for Big Read Lakeshore. She is pursuing a BA in Secondary Education at Hope College, and plans to become a social studies teacher in the West Michigan area. She also works for TRIO Upward Bound at Hope College, where her students inspire her every day to advocate for multiple literacy awareness. In her free time, she enjoys swing dancing, writing poetry, and spending time with her friends and loved ones.

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