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Downton Abbey: Sybil’s Death a Metaphor for a Passing Age

Sybil-Tom-DowntonAbbeyJessica Brown Findlay’s character Sybil was the most modern among Downton Abbey’s aristocratic Crawleys. Yet her death could serve as a metaphor for the passing of Edwardian England in the face of galloping 20th Century modernism.

Poor Sybil was clearly done in by the family’s adherence to old-fashioned prejudices, out-dated principles and a belief in the infallibility of one’s position in life.

One of the more fascinating aspects of the show has been the Crawley’s reaction to new technology and modern ideas. They’ve done better with the former rather than the latter.

They begrudgingly embrace the horseless carriage, the telephone and electricity. Yet they stubbornly cling to their notions of class and privilege, even as their world is crumbling around them. As the saying goes, old ideas die hard.

The inevitable clash plays out as Sybil is about to give birth. Sir Robert calls in his colleague, Sir Philip, whose training as a doctor is clearly steeped in 19th Century pseudo-science. Wife Cora demands Dr. Clarkson, who had a much more modern approach to medicine.

No one is more appalled than Sir Philip when Clarkson demands a urine test. And, Sir Robert refuses to even discuss it in mixed company. Clarkson makes a competent diagnosis; he suspects eclampsia. Sir Philip refuses to even consider the symptoms.

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In reality, Sir Philip’s attitude is unrealistic. The connection between protein in urine and eclampsia was first established in 1843 and was well recognized by the end of the 19th Century, according to medical references.

In any event, Clarkson makes the right call by ordering a cesarean section immediately.

Sir Philip, however, won’t hear of it, insists everything is normal and disparages Clarkson’s “public hospital.” Cora is hysterical. She would have taken Sybil to the hospital an hour ago, she pleads. At loggerheads, they turn to husband Tom.

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“So, your daughter’s life will be decided by the chauffeur,” the Dowager Countess acerbically notes.

Tom doesn’t know what to do.

With Titanic bravado, Sir Philip says he is sure he can deliver the baby without danger to the mother. Dr. Clarkson only sheepishly says he thinks his medical procedure will work. Finally, Sir Robert puts his foot down.

“Tom, Dr. Clarkson is not sure he can save her. Sir Philip is certain he can bring her through it with a living child. Isn’t a certainty better than a doubt?” he reasons. Tom, the Irish Republican, sides with an English aristocrat.

After agonizing, Sybil seems to have a normal birth and the child is a healthy girl. But the following night, she starts suffering seizures, a sure sign of the eclampsia that Clarkson had diagnosed.

By then it’s too late. Unfortunately, the use of magnesium sulphate to control eclampsia seizures won’t be discovered until 1955. That family is in a panic as Sybil goes into death throes. “How could this happen in the 20th Century?” says an astounded Matthew.

“You were so sure!” Sir Robert bellows at Sir Philip.

“The human life is unpredictable,” Sir Philip can only mutter, his bumbling ineptitude unmasked.

Cora is so grief stricken she banishes Sir Robert to the dressing room to sleep. Later, she says she’s going to write an apology to Dr. Clarkson.

“Because if we’d listened to him, Sybil might still be alive. But Sir Philip and your father knew better and now she’s dead,” she says with steely animus.

Let’s see, Robert’s Old World arrogance has muddled up the running of the estate, squandered the family fortune and now contributed to his daughter’s death. Can anything else go wrong? Tune in next week and follow TheImproper on Twitter for all the latest updates.


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