[This piece contains information about the plot of Downton Abbey, up to and including Sunday night's fourth-season finale.]
Another season of Downton Abbey has come to a close, and once again, Lady Edith is unlucky. Unlucky in love, unlucky in life. She's unluckier than Bates, and he went to jail for something he didn't do, for what certainly felt like a really, really long time. She's unluckier than Matthew, and he's quite deceased.
Let us return to when we met Edith, four seasons ago. Trapped between beautiful Mary and adventurous Sybil, Edith was the sad one. She was the Jan, as Brady Bunch viewers immediately recognized. And when she actually met someone who liked her, he was driven off by Mary, who was angry at Edith for revealing that Mary's romantic activities were so amazing that they killed a Turkish guy. (A mean thing to do, Edith. Tsk.)
After that, Edith decided to start a little thing with a married farmer, but his wife found out, and it was adios to Old MacDonald.
Then, Edith met Bandages McGee (not his real name, probably), who either was or was not her dead wealthy cousin, making him a perfect romantic prospect. He swore his love to Edith, but nobody else believed he was the dead wealthy cousin he said he was and he bailed out as quickly as a writer who suddenly realizes he has no idea where this plotline is going. So Edith was alone again, naturally.
Then, Edith got engaged to Anthony, the same guy Mary drove off once before, after convincing him she loved him in spite of his war-torn arm. But because Edith is Edith, he dumped her at the altar in front of her horrified family, humiliating her in front of the very people who already felt sorry for her and considered her a lost cause who would be better off as the spinster they expected her to become than as the wife of this older disabled veteran (and shame on them, by the way). Exit Anthony, pursued by Edith's terrible luck.
Then she met a newspaper editor named Michael, who offered her a job writing (yay!), and had a thing for her (yay!), but had an institutionalized wife (boo!). In order to divorce his wife, he went off to Germany (as you do in the years following World War I, if you have a taste for adventure), where he disappeared. And, of course, because Edith is Edith, she found herself taking television's most common journey: From Virginity To Pregnancy In One Encounter. Her aunt bundled her off to Switzerland for the mysterious, months-long absence everyone either agreed to consider not suspicious at all or actually did not consider suspicious because they cannot imagine Edith having a sex life. There, at the insistence of Aunt Rosamund, Edith placed her child informally – not legally – with some very nice Swiss people, apparently, but she almost immediately began having second thoughts.
You see, Edith may not be lucky, but she is not stupid, and she had come to understand that when one disappears into post-WWI Germany after being last seen with some disagreeable fellows in brown shirts, one may never be seen again. This would result in Edith taking over for Michael in his business (because that's what he arranged), and she could not bear the thought of not passing any of what he had on to the baby. Also, one senses that perhaps Edith, who kept her daughter for a few months for the sake of the breastfeeding and therefore had likely formed a fairly fully developed bond with her, would rather she weren't quite so far away, and perhaps were even somewhere that Edith might occasionally see her.
And so, Edith undid the informal arrangement and brought her baby back to Downton (while everyone else is away), and placed her with a local farmer and his family. The farmer agreed to pretend to accept her story that this baby totally belonged to a terribly scandalous friend of Edith's, and Edith couldn't keep her in the house because of the terrible shame that would result from her family being associated with this scandalous friend. And he pretty much said, "I feel so sorry for you about your dead imaginary scandalous friend and your terrible shame that I will even lie to my wife about where I got this baby, because although it is quite a few decades early for this expression, I am picking up what you are putting down."
On the surface, this may seem to be the saddest thing of all for Edith, in that it seems to be, for her, a far more profoundly important pain than her various suitors would be alone. But really, this is one of the first times Edith has well and truly made her own decision, in defiance of her family, and has taken care of business, as it were. (I will admit that I skipped some of the middle of this season, while Edith was getting herself into all this mess, and was interested to see her right back in the thick of misery when I returned.)
Aunt Rosamund shame-bullied Edith into the Swiss adoption, which she never wanted, and when it came right down to it, Edith ultimately did what Edith thought was right, for reasons other than wanting to get married already before she gets old. (Which, quite frankly, she already is, to these people.) (This is all leaving aside the fact that Edith's ideas about adoption seem odd, in that an adoptive family, of course, brings its own blessings, meaning the child's life is not simply devoid of joy because she cannot inherit from her birth father.)
The social limitations on and the punishing of the Crawley daughters have always been central themes of Downton – consider Mary's scandal with her literal death bed (the bed of death!), her initial frustration at the idea of marrying Matthew to save the family, Sybil's chafing at the limitations of her life, and Edith's perpetual wheel-spinning over what to do if she doesn't get married. At times, the story of Edith has seemed needlessly sadistic, in that one eventually wonders how many ways (foiled by beautiful sister, dumped at the altar, abandoned in mystery, foiled by wife, foiled by another wife) one woman can be thumped with the giant rubber mallet of life until even the little cartoon birds flying over her head are dizzy.
But in a way, Edith is where you really see the difficulties that the daughters' lack of autonomy brings. Edith is certainly sad that she's not married yet, but it's the limits on her other options that make this life-breakingly depressing for her. Otherwise, she would work, and wait, and hope, and be happy. But because there is such a narrow idea in her family of what constitutes success, her writing career has never been more than tepidly received, and certainly is understood to be a poor substitute for multiple pregnancies when it comes to getting some meaning in her life.
Perhaps the lesson of all these stories of Edith being left and left and left again is nothing brings in misery like being entirely at the mercy of other people's decisions to stay or leave, which is where Edith's father, well-meaning though he may be, has left her. It is oddly her grandmother, the Dowager Countess, who seems to understand most fully that Edith's options are limited, and that this is not to be taken as a happy thing, only one the D.C. would argue cannot be changed.
On the one hand, Edith's story – like Mary's – contains a sort of gross "don't have sex when you're not supposed to or you'll pay a horrible price" lesson. Maybe he'll die! Maybe you'll get pregnant! There is no sexual agency without karmic punishment! But on the other, there is this: In becoming a mother, Edith got out from under the thumb of her father. Given the opportunity to be responsible for something instead of responsible to everyone, she seems remarkably at peace as this season closes. Very sad, but at peace.