This would never have happened to Rose.
Not that I blame Anna. I grieve for Anna.
The Rose I mean is not young Lady Rose, the recent debutante on “Downton Abbey,” but rather Rose Buck, head houseparlormaid on “Upstairs Downstairs.” She is the spiritual ancestor of Anna, lady’s maid to Lady Mary Crawley on “Downton.” The two would have been close contemporaries had they really lived, but in fact they were born four decades apart – Rose in the early 1970s, Anna just a few years ago. Both are honest, straightforward servants who know their place and show little ambition to leave it.
The rape of Anna early in the “Downton” season just ended has shocked and outraged many viewers. It happened to Anna rather than Rose not because Anna somehow brought it on herself — she did not — and Rose didn’t. It happened to Anna because Rose’s creators and audiences in the 1970s weren’t ready for it, and maybe we are.
I wasn’t enthralled with the first season of “Downton” three years ago; it seemed such a blatant rip-off of “Upstairs Downstairs.” (Jean Marsh, who created that groundbreaking series with Eileen Atkins and played Rose, publicly agreed, perhaps not least because “Downton” left her own “Upstairs” update that season in the dust.) But the next season, weekly visits with the Crawley family and their servants, who are at least as interesting as their supposed betters, helped pass winter evenings in Vancouver. By the third season, I willingly joined in the mass mania.
As the fourth season was about to begin in January, media reports hinted that a shocking crime would be committed against a beloved servant. At the beginning of the third episode (second in the United States), a somber disclaimer warned: “The following drama contains scenes which may not be suitable for all audiences.” I prepared for the worst but kept watching.
The rape was among the most disturbing pieces of television I’ve seen in recent years, one of the few that have actually kept me awake at night, like John Lithgow’s Trinity Killer on “Dexter,” or the “Mad Men” episode in which Joan prostitutes herself for a partnership. “It’s only a story,” my mother would have assured me as a child, but that didn’t clear my head.
For the record, I have never been raped (though a date 30 years ago who wouldn’t take no for an answer makes me wonder). But around the time “Upstairs Downstairs” was becoming a hit for PBS on what was then “Masterpiece Theater,” I was the women’s beat reporter for The Daily Collegian, Penn State’s independent student newspaper. As an 18-year-old junior reporter, I contributed to The Collegian’s Roe v. Wade coverage and wrote a three-part series on the status of women — negligible — in the School of Engineering. (A recent feature by one of my students at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism indicates little has changed.) I also wrote a two-story package, published as a full page, on rape. My lede:
Midnight. Walking back to your East Halls dorm from a late meeting, you decide to take a shortcut through Parking Lot 80. In the middle of the lot you hear quick footsteps behind you. Suddenly he grabs you and drags you into a parked car.
After five, minutes, an hour, or longer, it’s over and you realize what has happened . . .
Forty years later, I can see how naive my reporting was. In the ‘70s, rape was considered a women’s issue because we assumed that only women could be raped. (Maybe “Deliverance” hadn’t yet made it to campus.) Rape was a stranger grabbing you in a deserted area; we didn’t think or talk in terms of date rape or acquaintance rape, though surely both happened. Over the years, I’ve come recognize rape not as a sexual act, but as a crime of aggression in which the weapon is sex.
Anna was as blindsided as the hypothetical “you” in my lede. Going about her business below stairs when everyone else was above, she was attacked by a guest’s valet whose response to her rejection was a smack across the mouth so hard it split her lip. In fact, so many elements of Anna’s rape and its aftermath were covered in my articles: her shame, her feeling of dirtiness or being “spoiled” for her husband, her plea to the housekeeper who found her that “nobody else must ever know.” Many cases never reported, read the headline on my second article.
Some “Downton” fans praised Julian Fellowes, the show’s creator and writer; others excoriated him. He publicly defended the plotline, as did the actress Joanne Froggatt, who told at least one interviewer she was proud to have played it. In comments on the Artsbeat blog of The New York Times, viewers’ reactions ranged from “entirely predictable” to “shocking and unexpected.” One complained that it “came out of nowhere.”
But that’s how rape happens. Except in situations where abuse has been become routine, what woman expects to be raped? Not the high school classmate brutally beaten and raped just months after graduation; not the former colleague raped by a burglar in her own home; not the onetime friend jumped on her lunch-hour walk, who luckily escaped.
Anna’s rape — and notice how we pin the crime to the victim, as in “the Rodney King case” — certainly got viewers talking and thinking. My friend Lois said she was disappointed; Anna, she thought, would have spoken up. I disagree. It would have been wonderful to see Anna walk back upstairs and straight into the private concert by Dame Nellie Melba to face the rapist (who had already returned, smoothing his trousers). But as Froggatt explains, Anna is a woman of her time. The shame she feels is the shame women were still conditioned to feel in 1973, never mind the 1920s.
Rose and Anna would be dead by now. If they had lived, they’d have faced the privations of World War II and the postwar period with the same staunchness that carried them through World War I on camera. They’d have grown old without asking for much, with little if any resentment toward the privileged families they served. It would never have occurred to them to turn others’ crimes against them to their advantage, the way the ruthless Claire Underwood is using her college rape in the current season “House of Cards.”
Before the rape episode, “Downton With Cats,” a Shouts & Murmurs column in The New Yorker, referred to one from a past season in which Anna told her then-fiance, Mr. Bates, “not to worry about her, because she is ‘a trouper.’ ”
Anna is a trouper. She’ll come through, despite the “it” she can never entirely leave behind. And if it turns out that Anna’s husband did kill the rapist, as suggested while the “Downton” season was fizzling to its end? Well done, Mr. Bates.