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Downton Abbey's Julian Fellowes: ‘The show is about female independence’

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Nick Briggs/PBS

Season 5 of Downton Abbey was, in many ways, about female independence.

Mary (Michelle Dockery) made the romantic decisions that were right for her, even though they were controversial for the time; Cora (Elizabeth McGovern) pursued her interest in art history, and stood up to her husband, Robert (Hugh Bonneville), when he didn’t trust her with the flirtatious Simon Bricker (Richard E. Grant); and Rose (Lily James), who is Anglican, married a Jewish man, Atticus (Matt Barber), despite the oppositions of her mother—and much of society. 

Edith (Laura Carmichael) also, and especially, stands out on this independent front. She entrusted a local farming family with Marigold, the child she had out of wedlock with the late Michael Gregson (Charles Edwards). But by season’s end, she took Marigold back into her care. (Though Edith “adopted” Marigold, and still has not told Mary that she is Marigold’s mother, after months of longing, Edith is finally taking care of her daughter again.) Not to mention, she’s overseeing Michael’s publishing company, which she inherited upon his death.

“She has an incredibly modern storyline, really,” says Carmichael, who adds that she felt very fortunate to have such a meaty narrative to play. “She’s a working, single mother.”   

But Julian Fellowes—the show’s creator, sole writer, and executive producer—maintains that Downton Abbey, which is currently up for Emmy consideration, has long been about female independence. “The show is about the discovery of female independence as much as any other single themes,” Fellowes says. “The changing role of women between 1912 and 1925 was fantastic, given that it was only 13 years. With the storyline of Marigold, we’re reminding people that until comparatively recently an illegitimate child was impossible if you wanted to maintain a respectable lifestyle.”

Bringing Edith and Marigold’s storyline to the screen was important for Fellowes, in large part, because it represents the real-life situations of many women, from myriad backgrounds, who lived during this time. 

“That culture was with us absolutely until the end of the fifties, and in all classes,” Fellowes says. “Someone like Edith would have a great deal to lose because she would also have to pay the penalty of being a worldwide scandal. Working class women in Liverpool probably wouldn’t, but the working class woman in Liverpool would be unemployable so she had to pretend that her daughter was her sister and her mother was the mother, [etc.], to keep her employability, her respectability, her potential as a wife.”  

He concluded: “There were many, many women stuck in that, and I think it was good to have that emblematic story in our show.”

Downton Abbey is heading into its sixth and final season, and from the sound of it, there will be much more on the subject of female independence in regard to Edith (Mary’s bound to find out about Marigold by the series’ end, right?) and otherwise. 

Emmy nominations will be announced on July 16 at 11:30 a.m. ET. Winners will be announced during the Emmys telecast, which will air live on Fox at 8 p.m. ET on Sept. 20.