5 tips from Lady Sybil, Downton Abbey’s rebel, lessons from the women of Netflix

Sybil from Downton
Jessica Brown Findlay plays Lady Sybil Crawley

In this the second in the Great Women of Netflix series we continue our look at the ladies of Downton Abbey.  We began the series examining the finer qualities of the one and only Lady Mary Crawley. I would encourage you to begin with the top dog, so to speak, but feel free to first read these reflections on the Earl of Grantham’s youngest and most rebellious child, Lady Sybil.

We all know Sybil is lovely and to quote Billy Joel (which likely will never happen again) ‘only the good die young‘ and that’s what happened to dear Sybil.

Here are the 5 things we can learn from Sybil: Four good, one a cautionary note.

  1. There is no point in being a snob.  Egalitarian, hardworking, independently-minded, Sybil just cut through the crap.  She could have married one of those boring, rich neighbourhood boys but in the end, would have nothing to do with them.  Friendly, yes, attracted, no.  I’m sure if they’d been decent, egalitarian, hardworking chaps she might have given them a second look.  She had convictions and she stuck to them till the bitter end.
  2. Put your actions where your mouth is:  It’s one thing to talk like a progressive and  quite another to behave like one. Like her eldest sister, Sybil was also very good to the household staff, single-handedly orchestrating a parlour maid’s rise in stature out of domestic service and into business. Go out of your way to give someone a hand up – it will not diminish you in the least.
  3. Be a professional regardless of your qualifications.  It didn’t take much in the way of education in those days to become a nurse, among the most challenging professions to enter now. Regardless, Sybil took her work as a nurse seriously, adopted the right demeanor (serious and kind), actively learned, dressed the part.  You and I may not have all the designations and qualifications we might want or need, but we can always behave like professionals, and that commands respect.
  4. Look for the good in others.  This is a tough one especially when you’re dealing with a person completely opposite to your own character.  Sybil even managed to see the good in Mary when there was very little to be had.  I gotta say though, she did pretty much ignore Edith, but then when Sybil was alive Edith was not at her best.  Edith improved with experience, but more on that in the next post.

And now, the cautionary note:

5. The problem with Sybil was her choice in husband.  I think we’re supposed to like Tom.  He is the ‘every man’, representing the real people like you and me, or at least me.  But he’s an idiot.  While Sybil threw herself into productive and difficult work during the war, Tom drove the family car. He was a conscientious objector – fine – but that doesn’t mean he couldn’t help with the traumatized and wounded.  Even Barrow put his small heart into that.  But not Tom.  And then he whined at Sybil about her really loving him – basically insisting that he knew her better than she knew herself when, honestly, she showed absolutely no signs of caring about him.  He was a handy conduit to get out of the Abbey  but that was about it.  Why she decided to run away with that sorry excuse for a man is beyond me.

And then to make matters worse, the bugger leaves her pregnant in Ireland to save his own skin. Seriously, why she didn’t kick him out after that is beyond me.  And what happened to his career as a journalist? He returns to Downton and mooches off the family business.  Where is his integrity?  Edith becomes a journalist and then a publisher and Tom walks around the estate in tweeds and has lunch at the Grantham Arms.  Nice life.  All that to say, I think Sybil really got that one wrong. Or maybe the blame should fall on Julian Fellowes who wrote the series.  Either way, it does take the shine off rewatching the series for the 10th time because I have to endure Tom saying, “Well, I hope I am a part of this family.”  You’re not and so bugger off.

And so that’s Sybil.  Eminently loveable. Doomed from the start.

Let’s move on to Edith who just gets better with time.

Be sure to agree or disagree with me. I welcome the debate!

downton sisters

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6 tips from Lady Mary Crawley – lessons from the women of Netflix

women of downton (2)

I love January.  Despite polar temperatures here in the great, white north it is a good time to set a few goals clean out some closets and drawers and review finances.

Because of the cold, it’s also a great time to settle inside and watch and rewatch some of my favourite Netflix shows.  Sadly, Netflix offers up a lot of content that I can’t watch beyond about 10 minutes because they’re awful.  Bad story, bad acting, the works.  And so I revisit the old reliables:  yes, another round of Downton Abbey, The Crown series 1 – again- and series 2 (now  watching it again, too).  Like rereading Jane Austen, the more I watch these excellent series the more I find to be gained on closer inspection, and much for the great woman to learn thanks to the female focus in both series.

So let’s take a few positive lessons from the women at Downton and Buckingham Palace. This may take a while (more like a series of posts) so bear with me – hopefully, it will be both fun and informative.  First up, the heiress apparent.

women of downton
Michelle Dockery as Lady Mary Crawley

Lady Mary Crowley

How can we not begin with Lady Mary and her ‘I’m-so-freakin-bored-by-you’ voice. What does she do that the rest of us should emulate?

  1. First and foremost, she’s really nice to Anna her ladies’ maid.  Rather than take a strip off Anna she saves her venom for her peers, like her sister, mother, friends and of course, the men in her life.  Someone in a position of power and authority who lords it over those with less power and status is abominable.  We’ve all witnessed the woman who can’t thank the waiter, takes a piece out of the sales assistant in a loud voice, finding every opportunity to be rude and dismissive over those they perceive as beneath them.  Lady Mary throws her weight against those who can take it, and throw it right back.  This is a key factor in maintaining Mary’s likeability because otherwise we wouldn’t give a crap about her. She also does nice things for Anna like giving her access to her doctor, her house (wedding night in the Abbey!) and time off when she needs it (and Anna spent a lot of time in and around prisons).  Mary is a great employer.

What else does Mary do well?

2. She doesn’t rush for anyone.  Slow and steady is the way she enters a room – good posture, commanding, not to be rushed.

3. Lady Mary never gets drunk – that would diminish her verbal capacity to take anyone down a notch at a moment’s notice – message there – stay in control of your sensibilities and you have control of the room.

4. Importantly, she never breaks down in public.  She has terrific falling apart scenes in private but never in front of the family at large or the household.  She reserves emotional collapse for her grandmother, Carson, sometimes with Anna but she keeps it together everywhere else.  She never uses crying to elicit attention or sympathy, and she does not lose her temper in public.  She may say things that cause even her to feel a twinge of regret.  Though, who’re we kidding – she doesn’t regret much other than having her way with the Turk made tricky by him dying in her bed. That was a low point.

5. She can cook one signature dish – scrambled eggs.  If you recall the episode where the new piglets almost die for lack of water and Mary and that attractive government inspector (who also happens to be heir to something or other and so one of her kind) spend all night in evening clothes restoring the piglets to life.  Then they head to the Downton kitchen for a snack and what does our Mary do but whip up some scrambled eggs served with a decent glass of red wine.  Talk about style.  And, dear friends, you do not need more than the ability to scramble an egg because that works pretty much any time of the day or night.

6. Finally, Lady Mary does embrace work.  She takes on the managing of the estate and certainly doesn’t need that useless wimp Tom (more on him in the next post).

I welcome your views on Lady Mary.  What have I missed?  I’m so interested to know what you think her strengths are as we all know her weaknesses.

Next up, Sybille.  I’ll skip Edith for now because she is so delightfully complex.  And I have a bone to pick with Sybille, as much as I love her.

 

Avoiding perfection

Mad-Women
Mad Men women

There are so many views on perfection:  It is the key to success or a recipe for dissatisfaction.  It can never be achieved, it is the only way to achieve.  It can drive passion or foster unhappiness.  What is a great woman to do?

We are all too familiar with the pressure to look perfect and the tired tale of the role advertising continues to play in convincing us that perfect hair, nails, makeup, clothes, legs, arms, abs – I could go on – is the route to happiness, success and romance.  That is a load of nonsense and I hope you, dear reader, have let that go.  It’s a bit like meditation, you have to practice releasing these thoughts consciously before it becomes second nature. The critical move is to start questioning the value of what you do on a daily basis to get yourself ready to face the world.  Removing one bit of bondage at a time is a good way to test the value of your efforts.

What of other pursuits? Is perfection an idea or a standard?  As an idea it enables you to think something through to what you hope will be its natural conclusion.  You ponder and introduce new ideas, reject others.  It leads to practice and improvement, accomplishment and confidence.  As a standard it may become a relentless dictator, leading to processes and procedures that give the illusion of achieving perfection while driving those around you (not to mention yourself) absolutely crazy.  When I think about the people I enjoy working with and for, they are the ones who look at a thing from every which way to arrive at clarity.  The ones who try to turn perfection into a standard and a specific way of behaving and recording, can become rigid and critical,  labeled as a merciless micro-manager – demotivating and alienating everyone in their path.

The quest for perfection seems to be rooted in criticism.  Criticize the young relentlessly and you will render them slaves to perfection.  This is so true of children but also true of people embarking on careers.  Criticism can bring the brightest soul to their knees, and they recover their stance often through the pursuit of perfection, second-guessing themselves, working long, fruitless hours, and in turn rendering them in turn as employers who wreak the same havoc on their employees.  I don’t think the perfectionist drive is gender specific, but I do think women have often compensated for a lack of power (perceived or otherwise) by subjecting themselves and others to standards of perfection that are not valuable.  I know women of my generation, many of whom entered into professions and workplaces still largely dominated by men (and if not by men alone then certainly by male-thinking) found that on the outer edge of acceptance, the path forward seemed to call for pushing harder than everyone else –  dotting more ‘i’s’ and crossing more ‘t’s’ . I understand all that very well.  I also know that it is behaviour we don’t want to pass to the next generation of working women and certainly not to our kids.

A woman can and will be great without being perfect, distinguishing between constructive and ruinous criticism, by focusing her energy on the stuff that provides deep satisfaction. By letting the small things go, by actively leading a balanced life, pursuing interests for pleasure and accomplishment, without expectations of perfection. Don’t let perfection stand in the way of learning something new, doing something differently, or pursuing an interest.  If you’re not perfect, don’t worry, you don’t have to be.

I would be interested in the role perfectionism has played or not played in your life.  Let me know.

Links & resources

Become the woman of your dreams – a great TED talk that says it all so much better

Get to work – manual work

home repairs
Plumbing 101

We seem to be conveniencing (not a word but convenient) ourselves out of much life-affirming, vitality-giving manual labour, opting instead to outsource just about everything to someone else.  I applaud the jobs outsourcing creates with their opportunities for entrepreneurship and self-reliance, but what has been lost by not doing things oneself?

There is an argument to be made that one of the factors triggering the increase in consumer spending is a result of more leisure time, and more leisure time has been freed up because we are outsourcing chores that have previously been done the owner/occupant.  That would be us.  Chores typically done within the family (parents and kids) are relegated to an external service provider.  In my experience, most kids don’t have any weekly chores – no housecleaning, grass-cutting, window-washing – nothing.  They don’t know where the vacuum is in their house!  These chores aren’t difficult but there is a how-to for just about everything and that knowledge is not being shared on any level. There is a sequence to manual work, a method within the routine that renders it more efficient and effectively completed, and there is a great sense of satisfaction in seeing the physical results of effort so well applied.

Let’s consider the benefits of manual household labour, shall we?

The big one is house cleaning. It must be done, it is repetitive, endless and seemingly thankless.  On the ‘up’ side, it’s also a prime example of what has been identified as the absolutely perfect level of exercise for health and longevity – a steady, consistent pace – neither taxing to the body nor the mind.  For those of us with stairs, that up and down with the vacuum and mop will help to outperform the fitness tracking device in just a few hours.  And what of the pleasures of managing your house yourself?  Having close knowledge of what goes where and why – the Marie Kondo effect of keeping on top of the belongings, those that belong and those that don’t.  Some of you may remember that housecleaning made a bit of a comeback when Martha Stewart was at her height in the ‘90s.  Things just got out of hand with a set of standards that could only be met by Downton Abbey’s entire domestic staff.  It’s a chore not an obsession.

Granted, housework bears the moniker of ‘women’s drudgery’, and lord knows we’ve done too much of that.  The great divide has always been women do the indoor work (frequent and often complex) while men are relegated the outdoor chores (infrequent, simple and often seasonal). It makes no sense at all and fortunately, that’s what we’re here to do at the Great Woman – realign and assume only those behaviours, routines, actions and thoughts that will make women truly great –  and discard the rest.

If we put housework to one side, let’s consider the other opportunities for manual labour.  For those who like to garden there is plenty of manual labour to be had there, and if you’re so inclined then you’re probably doing it already and enjoying every moment of it.  If you don’t then you’ve already hired someone to figure that out and so we’ll put that aside too.  Focusing on some of the manual jobs typically enjoyed by men let’s consider the maintenance and restoration of outdoor furniture and decks, as one example.  Restoring wood is incredibly satisfying and hardly challenging at all.  One of my favourite tools is this little sander that is both light and powerful, allowing you to finesse around joins and into crevices.

the mouse
Easy to find

Finish with an easy to apply stain and your tired wooden table and chairs gleam.  It’s like taking them to the spa.  An easy win. And once you’ve tackled that then you can take the paint off your indoor door frames, freshen up your kitchen cupboard doors, refinish your stairs – there’s just no stopping you!

Consider pruning trees –one of these telescopic pruners, or a handy little saw that can be strapped to your toolbelt (and do get yourself one) makes the job easy regardless of height or strength.

telescopic pruner
Telescopic pruner is pretty darn handy

Of course, when a branch 40 ft. up needs to be taken out you call a professional – we can handle anything in the 20 ft. range or below.  Nice to have your man hold the ladder for you though.

How about snow shovelling?  What a fantastic workout!  All that weightlifting you’ve been doing will really pay off.  And there is something truly wonderful about going out into the cold and quickly becoming flush with warmth.

Cleaning out the eavestrough – again, not rocket science.  You need someone to hold the ladder or tie it off but after that, you are entirely capable of this simple chore.  While you’re up there you can take your sander and clean up those outdoor window frames.

Sadly, now that cars are essentially computers on wheels, car maintenance has been reduced to changing the washer fluid, maybe the oil.  My goal is to learn the fine art of tire rotation.  Really, I just want an excuse to wear a coverall like the gals in the top photo.

Surely, this work is what the fitness regime should be designed for – to prepare us for the work of life – the ability to manage our households independently and competently.  And importantly, this work is entirely different from what most of us do for a living, namely sitting in front of a computer, how we get to work, either sitting in a car or in a train, and what many of us resort to for leisure – watching tv.  And for those who simply cannot find time for a distinct fitness routine, a little household manual labour provides easy opportunities for bone-building, muscle-enhancing activity.

Short-term satisfaction versus long-term accomplishment is the promise of manual labour.  Something to reconsider.

 

Resources:

The life changing magic of tidying-up, Marie Kondo

https://www.amazon.ca/Life-Changing-Magic-Tidying-Decluttering-Organizing/dp/1607747308

 

More work for mother, Ruth Schwartz Cowen

http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/698373.More_Work_For_Mother

 

Never done, Susan Strasser

http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/398458.Never_Done