Monday, March 9, 2015

Downton Abbey Part II: Matthew and Mary (or how to write a gripping and satisfying romance)

by Kasey Tross

**WARNING:** This post is loooong. But I did condense 2 full seasons of TV into one blog post, so that’s something. And there’s a treat for you at the end...

For my last Downton Abbey analysis, check this post: How to Make Your Novel As Compelling As Downton Abbey. For all of you non-Downtoners, here is a little summary to give you some background:

The show begins with the sinking of the Titanic, which results in the tragic death of Lord Grantham’s two remaining male heirs. His 3 daughters, being female, may not inherit the estate (which includes the massive house, Downton Abbey, and its holdings). Lord Grantham’s lawyers search diligently for another heir, and find it in a distant cousin, Matthew Crawley, who is a middle class lawyer. The situation greatly irritates the eldest daughter of Lord Grantham, Mary, who has always hoped to someday become Lady Grantham, just like her mother- but she cannot do that without marrying her father’s heir.

So at the outset, the relationship is fraught with problems, and really, it is the obstacles that define Matthew and Mary’s relationship and make it so strong.

Obstacle 1: Personalities and Status

Mary is both headstrong and a blue-blooded Lady. She absolutely refuses to marry someone just because she’s told to, and she will only marry a man she deems worthy of a woman of her stature (translation: he has to be rich and connected). It is strongly suggested that she marry Matthew and he is decidedly middle class.

Matthew is, ironically, much like Mary in that he has no interest in marrying someone who is pushed upon him (and rightly suspects that’s what’s coming for him when he meets the family as the sole heir) and he is proud of his middle class status. He thinks that much of the fuss surrounding the aristocracy is silly and pointless, and would rather work five days a week to earn his keep.

Solution to Obstacle 1: Matthew and Mary Each Give a Little.

The delight in the overcoming of this obstacle is how obvious it is that they are so much alike, and it results in some wonderful verbal sparring matches between them. Eventually, they realize that neither one of them is the enemy: Mary gets to know Matthew and decides that yes, even though he can’t hold his fork correctly he is still an intelligent and decent human being, and Matthew decides that yes, even though Mary could probably drown when it rains from having her nose up so high in the air, she’s still human and intelligent and both softer and tougher than she looks.

Once this obstacle is overcome, Matthew proposes to Mary. Because in England in the 1920s if you wanted to know whether or not someone liked you, you proposed.

Mary says she’ll think about it. She loves him, and he’ll give her the title she’s always wanted so she’ll never have to leave her home, but does she love him enough?

Obstacle 2: Potential Usurping Heir = No Money, No Title

So then Lady Grantham (Mary’s mother) gets pregnant. Yes, she’s very old and it’s unusual, but still possible. But- what if it’s a boy? Suddenly, Matthew might not inherit, he might remain nothing but a middle class lawyer, which means if Mary marries him SHE could end up the wife of a middle class lawyer (perish the thought).

Now, this might seem like a no-brainer to most of us- marry for love, not for money, right? And while it’s easy to turn Mary into the villain here, from her point of view it’s not all about money and title- it’s about her family and her life. She loves Downton Abbey- she grew up there and she grew up believing she would always live there. The idea of not being there makes her terribly sad, and she doesn’t know if love would be enough to make up for that loss.

Well, Matthew decides he needs to know if Mary loves him enough to marry him, and demands a yes or no answer immediately, an answer based entirely on her feelings (not the heir question). Mary is too conflicted and can’t give him an answer. He takes it as a no and he leaves (a truly heartbreaking moment for both of them, in my opinion).

Solution to Obstacle 2: Miscarriage (sad)

The terrible tragedy of Lady Grantham’s miscarriage (which has a whole deep character-defining story of its own, I might add) is technically a “solution” to this obstacle in that Matthew is definitely now the heir. However, as far as he’s concerned, that ship has now sailed. If Mary didn’t want him when he might not have been the heir, then he didn’t want her now that he was the heir.

So Matthew moves on with his life and...

Obstacle 3: Matthew’s Engagement to Lavinia

Matthew eventually shows up again with a lovely and pleasant young lady named Lavinia. They clearly love each other and Mary comes to peace with the fact that he has moved on and so should she. When World War I breaks out and Matthew is sent to the front lines, Mary almost tells him that she still loves him, but she stops herself because she knows that to tell him would put his happiness with Lavinia in jeopardy and she loves him too much to do that (a huge character-defining moment for Lady Mary).

Obstacle 4: Mary Gets Engaged to The Jerk

I really can’t bring myself to call him anything but The Jerk, so that is how we shall refer to him. The polar opposite of Matthew’s engagement, Mary’s engagement is a business deal- and really, a blackmail deal. Mary has a dark secret she wants to keep hidden, and getting engaged to a powerful media magnate is the way to do it. He sees her as a trophy wife, bought with his silence, and she sees him as her only way to protect her (and her family’s) reputation.

Obstacle 5: Matthew Gets Severely Wounded in the War

Matthew comes home from war a broken man and doctors say the condition is permanent: he will never be able to walk or care for himself, or to ever have children. So even if, by some turn of events, he were not engaged to Lavinia, he would not be a suitable husband for Mary as he would never be able to produce an heir.

However, his injury does give us the opportunity to see the depth of Mary’s love for him, as she rarely ever leaves his side, despite the fact that at this point he has nothing to offer her. Her devotion causes problems between Mary and The Jerk, but he can’t say much, seeing as how Matthew is a cripple.

Solution to Obstacle 5: Matthew’s Condition Reverses!

It’s a miracle! Matthew can walk! The spinal injury was just a bruise, as it turns out, and Downton is once again safe with a healthy heir. Mary’s grandmother informs Matthew that Mary is still in love with him, and he is surprised (apparently her constant care didn’t tip him off) but remains engaged to Lavinia, citing her faithfulness in their engagement even through his debilitating injury.

Obstacle #6: Mary’s Deep Dark Secret

This ties in to Obstacle #4- with this secret, Mary is chained to The Jerk, knowing that even if she did break it off with him, her reputation would be toast and she would never be marriageable to any honorable man again, ever.

Solution to Obstacle #3 AND Obstacle #7: Lavinia’s Death

In a surprising and tragic twist of events, Lavinia takes ill with the Spanish flu and dies suddenly on the eve of her wedding to Matthew, but not without first seeing Matthew and Mary share a clandestine kiss. On her deathbed she tells Matthew that he and Mary are right for each other, and that they should be happy together.

Well, this is all well and lovely, but Matthew did love Lavinia, and her death rattles him, especially since he was busted being unfaithful to her hours before she died. Honorable man that he is, he is convinced now that somehow he and Mary being together that night caused Lavinia’s death- that she died of a broken heart- and that now any relationship he might have with Mary is cursed. Hence, a new obstacle, another chasm between him and Mary.

Solution to Obstacle #4: Lord Grantham’s Support

Lord Grantham starts to notice that his daughter Mary isn’t exactly the blushing bride when she’s around The Jerk, and he finally puts two and two together and understands why she’s with him. He tells her he knows The Jerk is blackmailing her and tells her he wants her to be happy, even if that means exposing her secret and tarnishing the family’s reputation. Anything is better than marrying The Jerk!

Mary is greatly relieved (and we as the audience want to kiss Lord Grantham) and breaks it off with The Jerk- not until after Matthew punches the guy though (it was becoming obvious to him as well that Mary was not being treated as she should be and he refused to let The Jerk get away with it, thank goodness).

Solution to Obstacle #6: Matthew’s Forgiveness

Later, Mary finally reveals to Matthew the secret that had kept her chained to The Jerk, feeling she owed him an explanation (after all, he did punch the guy). He is decidedly unbothered by her secret and easily forgives her, though after everything the two of them have been through, it’s not surprising. They’re friends again.

Solution to Obstacle #7: Matthew Comes to His Senses

Mary tells Matthew she will wait out the storm from her secret going public by going to America, and, in the cutest of ways, he keeps bringing it up, like a kid, saying, “’re really going to America?” And later, “So...when are you leaving?” And then finally, “Would you stay? If I asked you to?” And then he DOES ask her to by getting down on one knee and proposing and she says, “Are you sure?” Which is a perfectly valid question, considering all of this took EIGHT YEARS! And of course he says yes, and she says yes, and we all wept in front of our televisions and giddily replayed it about seventeen times.

SO what does this teach us about writing a perfectly beautiful love story?

1. OBSTACLES! So important. In this story the obstacles included the outside “wrenches”, but it also included character flaws and bad decisions. We got to see how Matthew and Mary really suffered as they dealt with difficult situations that tested their relationship- sometimes they handled it well (sticking by Matthew and nursing him) and sometimes not (waffling over whether or not she loved him).

2. Only way out is CHANGE! Out of these obstacles, only 3 were resolved by things out of the characters’ control- the rest were resolved through choices and changes the characters made. The solutions came as the result of forgiveness and love, which makes the story not only more emotionally appealing, but makes the characters so much more relatable and likable and makes their relationship stronger and more realistic. As a viewer, I couldn’t help but see many of these obstacles as insurmountable, and it was such a relief to me to see the growth in the characters that, in the end, finally brought them together in a way that was much more meaningful and special than if the obstacles had just kind of been swept away with a convenient coincidence.

 For example, even in the proposal scene, with all of the obstacles that had been resolved, I was still convinced that Matthew was going to let Mary go, because I believed he was too broken by the death of Lavinia to ever get over it. So when I saw him let it go, not only was it a relief because it meant they were finally going to be together, it made me love him even more for being able to overcome that obstacle and make a choice that would bring them both happiness.

3. The change makes them better. The most exciting thing about the Matthew and Mary relationship is to see how they each grew as a result of the love they had for each other. Mary learned to be unselfish and brave, and Matthew learned to bend a little bit. When they finally did come together in the end, they were the best versions of themselves, and that is why it finally worked. They brought out the best in each other. As a viewer, that was another reason that Matthew was so endearing to me- he saw the good parts of Mary, the parts that the audience could see because we saw her in her private moments, but that few other people recognized. I loved that he saw that in her and that he fought for her because of it, and that his recognition of that part of her made her better.

4. It’s all in the little things. I would like to point out that from the time Matthew and Mary met up to the second he proposed, they had kissed exactly twice: once when he proposed the first time, and then the secret kiss when Lavinia saw. Despite what popular culture might try to tell us (*cough*50Shades*cough*), a love story can still be written without all the junk that is so often included these days. Downton Abbey did it! It took Matthew and Mary eight years to get there, but they did it!

Okay, if you’ve made it this far you deserve a treat, so here is their entire love story in four minutes and thirty seconds: The Lady and The Lawyer.


  1. This post was great, and I don't even watch Downton Abby! You put a lot of work into this, and have some great ideas here. :)

  2. What a great analysis! The clip makes me want to go back and watch the first few seasons of DA!



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