Call in the Auntie Brigade! Lessons from Downton Abbey


What would you do without your favorite aunt?

Crisis is in the air this week at Downton Abbey, and the decision about whom to turn to seems clear.  Whether it is 1922 or 2014, there is no one like an aunt. 

Lady Edith is pregnant, unwed, and the father (whom she adores) has disappeared without a word.  Unwanted pregnancies are incredibly complicated regardless of the era, and modern society still has a ways to go in terms of resolving this issue; however, Lady Edith's situation is downright dire.  Abortion is illegal, and having a child out of wedlock is looked upon by her family and all of those who surround her as disgraceful.  When Edith tries to confide in her mother, she asks her mother if she is bad.  Her mother says that everyone has bad thoughts, but one is not bad unless they act upon these thoughts.  Needless to say, the secretly pregnant Edith finds no comfort in her mother's words.  She chooses instead to confide in her quirky Aunt Rosamund.  Interestingly, her Aunt was incredibly harsh with Edith on the subject of dating the not-yet-divorced Michael Gregson during her last visit to London.  Nevertheless, her reaction to Edith's unwed pregnancy is calm and clear:

"I will support you whatever you decide.  Just as Cora will, and Robert.... I refused to be shocked."

Meanwhile, downstairs, Lord Grantham is off to the U.S. for a surprise trip to assist his brother-in-law with a mysterious problem.  Such travels traditionally necessitate a valet, which would be Mr. Bates.  Mr. Bates has finally re-connected with Anna, so the timing is problematic.  Anna does not have an aunt to look out for her, but Mrs. Hughes takes it upon herself, in an auntly fashion, to intervene.  Mrs. Hughes bodly explains to Lady Mary that Anna cannot spare Mr. Bates; Lord Grantham must bring Thomas as his valet in Mr. Bate's place.  Mrs. Hughes is so determined to protect Anna that she is willing to risk her job.  Then, when Lord Gillingham's creepy rapist valet, Mr. Green, surfaces for a surprise visit, Mrs. Hughes inserts herself and confronts him on Anna's behalf:

"I know who you are and I know what you've done.  While you are here, if you value your life, I should... keep to the shadows... Mr. Green, you were to blame and only you.  Don't you dare thank me, I've not kept silent for your sake."
Mrs. Hughes is obviously not Anna's aunt; however, as an older, childless, mentor, her protection of Anna since the rape is fierce.  The downstairs world of Downton functions a lot like a family; in this vein, it is easy to imagine Mrs. Hughes as Anna's beloved aunt.

As if these two crises are not enough, Ganny Violet has taken incredibly ill with bronchitis.  Her son is overseas, and her daughter-in-law and her granddaughter do stop by, but they seem eager to attend to their social plans; Lady Cora and Lady Mary's attention and caregiving is fleeting at best.  On the contrary, Lady Isobel foregoes sleep and withstands tremendous insults while nursing Violet around the clock.  Clearly, Isobel is not Violet's aunt, but she is similar to a niece, since her deceased son was married to Violet's granddaughter.  Considering the traditionally adversarial relationship of these two relatives, their intimacy during this illness and afterwards as they play cards by Violet's bedside is intimate, heartwarming and somewhat hilarious.

In her book, Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage, Elizabeth Gilbert writes movingly of her role as an aunt:

"Being exempted from motherhood has...allowed me to become exactly the person I believe I was meant to be: not merely a writer, not merely a traveler, but also - in quite marvelous fashion - an aunt.  A childless aunt to be exact - which puts me in extremely good company, because here's an astonishing fact that I discovered in the margins of my research on marriage: If you look across human populations of all varieties, in every culture and on every continent (even among the most enthusiastic breeders in history, like the nineteenth-century Irish, or the contemporary Amish), you will find that there is a consistent 10 percent of women within any population who never have children at all.  The percentage never gets any lower than that...In the 1920s in America, for instance, a whopping 23 percent of adult women never had any children. (Doesn't that seem shockingly high, for such a conservative era, before the advent of legalized birth control? Yet it was so...The number of women throughout history who never become mothers is so high (so consistently high) that I now suspect that a certain degree of female childlessness is an evolutionary adaptation of the human race...Such childless women - let's call them the "Auntie Brigade" - have never been well honored by history, I'm afraid...But they are vital as they live, and they can even be heroic."

My work as a therapist echoes this truth that aunts often act as strong, steady and sometimes silent heroines:  A client's aunt is the first one confided in during the coming out process, and she welcomes the news with open arms and then proceeds to ease the revelation of this news among the other family members.  When a client is diagnosed with cancer, her sister relocates and moves in to help care for her nephews.  Sometimes the most important role an aunt plays, much like Aunt Rosamund, is as a supportive sounding board.  In a crisis, people often do not need advice; they need no-strings-attached support and unconditional love.  An aunt has the psychological distance to forgo judgement and the ability to love and nurture, not as a friend, not as a parent, but as someone special in between.

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This article was originally published at . Reprinted with permission from the author.