Why is Mary Such a Bitch to Edith?

Downton Abbey’s sordid sister sub-plot

Posted Mar 04, 2015

There’s something evil going on in that stately home in the rolling hills of Yorkshire and it’s a lot more nefarious than the re-bedding of the body of the expired Turkish gentleman. It’s the shocking way that Mary treats her younger sister Edith and how remarkably, she gets away with it.

Source: morgueFile

Beautiful, stylish, haughty, powerful Mary should really be secure enough in her own identity that she doesn’t need to diminish poor struggling Edith in order to confirm her superiority, yet she does and has continually done so during the five seasons of Downton Abbey. Mary, who has men falling all over her, has provided an heir to continue the Grantham line, and enjoys the services of a high profile lady’s maid, Anna (does Edith do up her buttons herself?) is never taken to task for the comments she makes putting her little sister down. Cora – wake up! Robert – open your eyes! There’s damage being done here!

This sub-plot mirrors the truth about what goes on in so many families, where often an older sister is ruthless in her need to keep her rival’s head under water so she can shine. I explore that reality in my book, My Sister, My Self: The Surprising Ways that Being an Older, Middle, Younger or Twin Shaped Your Life. I interviewed over four hundred women, teens and girls about their sister relationships, and heard many stories of how damaging the constant day-to-day abuse can be to the recipient’s self-esteem.

One younger sister who participated in the study, Aileen, told about her relationship with Dinah, three years older. Even when things were relatively calm, Aileen always had the feeling that there was something awful brewing. “She would love to take the wind out of your sails—if you were excited about something, it was only a matter of time until—punch!” Dinah would be sure to bring her down.

The fear you hear in Aileen’s story is similar to Edith’s fear that Mary will learn the truth about her illegitimate child, Marigold, and shame her mercilessly. Although it may not be obvious, Mary’s need to keep Edith under her thumb belies a deep insecurity—a profound flaw in her character—making her capable of splitting off any guilt in the service of coldly maintaining her fragile superiority. Due to the family’s commitment to avoiding any unpleasantness, the only thing that could mitigate this dynamic, the intervention of the parents, does not take place.

So dear, poor Edith continues to live in terror of being discovered by the one person who should care most about protecting her—her older sister.

To learn more, please visit my website: www.mysister-myself.com.

I’m a psychotherapist, family therapist and the author of Runaway Husbands: The Abandoned Wife's Guide to Recovery and Renewal and My Sister, My Self: The Surprising Ways that Being an Older, Middle, Younger or Twin Shaped Your Life. I can be found online at www.vikkistark.com.