Edith comes into her own on ‘Downton Abbey’

Actress Laura Carmichael portrays Lady Edith Crawley in "Downton Abbey."
(Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)
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There’s something to be said about being the other sister.

Lady Edith, the second of three daughters to the Earl of Grantham in the upstairs-downstairs international sensation “Downton Abbey,” has wrested compassion from overlooked middle siblings far and wide with her woeful existence.

The Jan Brady of post-Edwardian Yorkshire, in the course of three seasons, has endured no shortage of “Marcia! Marcia! Marcia!” moments. There is the combative relationship with her older, seemingly prettier sister Mary (Michelle Dockery) — complete with cutting one-liners that would surely muster a smile out of the Dowager Countess.

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There are her attempts at acquiring skills — whether it be driving, farming or writing — which are met with acrimony from certain family members. Then there’s the matter of her love life, a sorrowful display of men who get engaged to her sister and die, are too old and jilt her at the altar, or are legally married to a woman confined at a mental asylum.

“It’s all kind of depressingly great,” so says Laura Carmichael, the proprietor of the perpetually afflicted character. “Is that awful of me to say? It’s just that I think all the negative things that have happened, and her always feeling like she’s on the sidelines, have made her a far more interesting woman to me. I don’t want people to cry for her.”

On the contrary, people have found their spirit animal in Lady Edith. Her fortunes — or misfortunes, rather — have inspired all the trappings of a 21st century wonder: e-cards, memes, Tumblr sites and fake Twitter accounts. Huffington Post has crowned her a “badass,” and Slate, in a piece that ran last February, wrote of the open-to-change, plainer sister: “She’s basically the Carrie Bradshaw of the mid-war set. … She represents the future. It’s time for [creator and writer] Julian Fellowes to make use of that spinster.”

When the fourth season makes its stateside debut Sunday on PBS, it’s been six months since the death of Downton heir Matthew Crawley and a gloom still hovers over the estate as the roaring ‘20s beckon. Lady luck, meanwhile, seems to finally be with Lady Edith. She continues to write her own column; her newspaper editor, Michael Gregson, is in love with her and willing to go to great lengths to be with her; and her wardrobe has become significantly beaded and chic.

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It’s all enough to get Carmichael’s ruby red-stained lips to crack a smirk during a recent visit to Los Angeles.


“It’s a really strong [season] for Edith,” the 27-year-old British actress said with a slight crinkle in her voice, as if still getting acclimated to the idea. “It’s a fascinating time for women. We really get to play those moral dilemmas and social changes through Edith.”

That’s assuming American viewers, like some of the “Downton Abbey” brethren, are adverse to an advancing world. This season has already aired overseas, and the Internet is chock full of spoilers from Britain about a controversial predicament for Edith.

Fellowes is all too aware of the ire that the delay between the British and U.S. airings has drawn from viewers and critics. Production on its fifth season will commence next month, with the British-U.S. roll-out plan expected to be in place again.

“In a perfect world, everyone would see it at the same time,” Fellowes said. “It’s a tricky thing, particularly when it comes to keeping plot points from getting out. But the show has done very well with its January roll-outs, away from the fray of the September launches — despite the lag.”

The English series settled into a ratings groove on the public broadcasting network. Last season illustrated just how the goings-on of dignified aristocrats and their servants has gripped the American zeitgeist — it averaged a 7.7 rating and 11.5 million viewers across its seven-week run, helping it claim the title of the highest-rated PBS drama of all time.

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Just as “Downton Abbey” made PBS hip to obsess over — “SNL” spoofed it, Katy Perry used it to get through marital woes, “The Soup” has parodied it — it has also served as quite the springboard for some of its stars, Carmichael among them.

Prior to her consignment to adversity as Lady Edith, the then-aspiring actress worked as a receptionist at a doctor’s office — “I was God-awful at it. I was always forgetting to file stuff and I was wretched at answering the phones.” She was about to take on a stint in a local production of Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” when her agent called about an audition for “some period drama.”

“I was like, ‘Oh God, I’m going to have to turn down like six weeks of acting’ — it wasn’t even the longest job in the world! — just to say ‘Yes, my lord’? I thought I was auditioning to play a maid because it was all so hush-hush,” she said, noting that she still has the “enough to feel vintage” floral dress she auditioned in. “Of course, in hindsight, playing a maid would have been quite all right. But Edith is who I was destined to be. I never looked at her as the bad one. I looked at her like ‘Oh, my God, her story is so sad.’ ”

Carmichael revealed casting director Jill Trevellick urged her to play the part with the idea that Edith is a young Violet (a.k.a. Dowager Countess).

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“I hold on to that,” Carmichael said. “I think Edith would have been the most conventional of the three of them; I think she wanted the life of her grandmother — to marry well and be a lady of the house and throw very formal dinner parties. I think that’s all she fought for in those initial series, and I think that changed through the war.”


A metamorphosis Fellowes said is buoyed by Carmichael’s own reticent ambition. “Rather than becoming a hermit and living in that humiliation, she — encouraged by Matthew and Granny — finds a different path. She’s hungry for more. In that way, she’s very much like Laura. They have an appetite to grow, to learn. You can see it in her eyes when she’s on set, the look of someone taking it all in. I bet if she could take notes, she would.”

Carmichael, also like her fictional persona, is the middle of three sisters. But it’d be hard to call her the dowdy one — on this day her cheeks and lips have color, she’s wearing skinny jeans and there’s no pout in sight.

“I don’t get recognized a lot, as you can imagine,” she said, before doing her best American accent to note the sort of feedback she does get: “Oh my God, you are rather pretty” or “You look so fat on TV!”

And while the actress stresses that she doesn’t consider herself to be as unlucky as Edith, she does concede that she shares some of her feistiness. “I might be a bit more bossy with my sisters,” she said bashfully. “My sisters and I do nothing but hug and cry in a very different way than the Crawley sisters. But I have to say, I do love the scene where Edith calls Mary a slut. I just love it, because I would never have the will to say something like that out loud. She means it with everything inside her.”

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The animosity stops on the sets at Highclere Castle in rural England where the series is filmed. In the real, modern world, Carmichael and Dockery have a sisterly bond, notably in terms of their admiration of female pop stars.


“Beyoncé is a big part of our lives,” Dockery said. “And we’ve seen Rihanna in concert twice together. We like some of the filthy songs, what can I say. I think we prepped for my birthday night out in New York earlier this year by playing ‘Found Love in a Hopeless Place.’ It’s just how we get on.”

A fact Carmichael was all too pleased to confirm.

“Lady Edith might benefit from a little dancing to a Beyoncé song in those moments where she’s too uptight. Everyone wants to see her happy, maybe that’s what will get her there. Or Ryan Gosling for a mate.”


‘Masterpiece Classic: Downton Abbey’

Where: KOCE

When: 9 p.m. Sunday

Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)