Those Aren’t Just Cankles: Lady Sybil and the Politics of Childbirth

(WARNING: Downton Spoilers Ahead)

My fellow Downton Abbey fanatics and I are still in shock. We were traumatized Sunday night by a very surprising and tragic turn of events. While sad, I thought it was brilliant.

OK. No more of this polite tip-toeing around the issue for those of you who are behind on your DVRs. In 5, 4, 3, 2, 1…

So Lord Grantham basically killed Lady Sybil who was suffering from Eclampsia in childbirth by privileging the diagnosis of the, well, more privileged doctor over the less-lordly family practitioner. Whoo. Was Cora mad at Robert! We’re talking separate rooms and everything.

I wouldn’t blame him—Each doctor had a 50/50 chance of being right. But Grantham took the word of the aristocratic doctor over of the intuition of his wife, and in spite of the family doctor (Dr. Clarkson) who had treated Lady Sybil and was familiar with the normal size of her ankles. They were super swollen, Chief. And Clarkson knew it.

I find this issue so tasty. First, it represents the central conflict of  the whole series—The Upstairs/Downstairs-ness of it all. Lord Grantham is a slave to the olden days and aristocratic ways while Sybil is the one truly enlightened, progressive, forward-thinking character. How fitting, in a tragic sense, that she should die as a result of the old way of thinking.

More than that, however, I love how the politics of childbirth resonate with modern audiences because it’s still a hot topic for women and parents. Is Dr. Clarkson’s hands-on familiarity with Sybil an argument for midwifery? Kind of, although he also seems to represent big medicine with his suggestion of getting her to the hospital for a C-section. And, in spite of all our preparation and birth plans, who is empowered to make decisions for a mother in crisis? Her mother? Her husband? Her doctor? The man paying for it all? (Insurance companies?) The issue was as fraught then as it is now.

Also, this episode underscores the sheer helplessness we feel in these life-or-death-type situations. The Granthams are rich with a houseful of servants. They had 2 doctors on call in their mansion for the birth, but the room of lords and ladies had no choice but to sit helplessly by as Sybil seized and died. It was horrible and poignant. Sure we have better medicine, blood-pressure cuffs, and heart monitors now, but birth, life, and death are still big mysteries that we haven’t exactly solved.

Sybil’s final scene was quite troubling to watch. Heartbreaking. I haven’t felt so traumatized by TV since Lori gave birth and was (SPOILER!) subsequently put down by her son in The Walking Dead. The crossroads where a birth and a death overlap is always thought-provoking and moving and was perhaps explored best by Live in their 1994 song, Lightning Crashes.

And so, hats off—For Lady Sybil!

Photo Credit: Downton Online
Read more of my writing at Babble and at my blog, Every Day I Write the Book.

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