The other day, my friend Felicity and I were sitting around at lunch talking about historical precedent for the decline of civilizations and the people who succeed in creating a new world out of the ashes of failure. Yeah, lunch at our table is like that. I had started out talking about thematic elements of the sci-fi series, Grace’s Moon, that I’m going to start publishing in July and the backstory for the first book, Saving Grace. But the more we talked about hypotheticals of the future, the more we realized that there are strong correlations to things that have happened in the past. Not only that, we have some pretty spiffy representations of building a new world out of the old in popular entertainment!
I am, of course, talking about the shocking similarities between Scarlett O’Hara and the world she lived in and the changes it saw and Lady Mary Crawley, her world and its changes. Like a proverbial light bulb going off over my head, it dawned on me that these two women have a whole lot in common. They are survivors of two cataclysmic changes that ripped the carpet out from under the feet of their class contemporaries.
There are a lot of parallels that can be made between the antebellum South and British nobility in the early 20th century. Both societies were built on strong class foundations that went back for generations. Old families had old money and the estates to prove it. Southern plantations were their own little empires, just as the great estates of the British nobility were reminders of Europe’s feudal past. The social order was strictly maintained. Granted, you can’t exactly compare Southern slaves with British estate downstairs staff, but the gap between rich and poor was there in both cases.
Then came the change. In both cases, change was brought on by war. Also in both cases, the societies in question had begun to teeter a little before the war. The Southern economy was a real problem as technology advanced. The very agrarian dependence that had made them great was slowly becoming a handicap as the means of manufacturing were located increasingly in the North. For early 20th century Britain, the economic problems were coming in the form of grand estates going bankrupt, also as wider economic demands shifted to cities and factories and away from the old agrarian center. War merely forced the issue in both cases.
As both Scarlett and Lady Mary were quick to grasp, the only way to hold onto what they had and what they loved was to change to fit the changing times. The very title Gone With the Wind is a sad commentary about what happened to most of the great Southern plantations and families. They folded under the weight of their unpreparedness. But not Scarlett. Scarlett was shrewd and a little bit merciless. She saw what was going on and did whatever it took to salvage what was hers. Whether that meant going out and working in the fields so that she could eat or marrying a man she didn’t like so that she could take over his mill, she was willing to do it. She had her faults, but blindness was not one of them.
The same goes for Lady Mary. Although the salvation of Downton Abbey in a time when all of her peers were losing their estates to bankruptcy was not quite a single-handed (or close to it) effort, like Scarlett’s, she certainly saw which way the wind was blowing. If you boil it down, the entire plot of Downton Abbey is that the estate belongs, in spirit if not in name, to Mary, and come hell or high water, she is going to save it. Whether that means marrying the heir (which worked out nicely, considering she loved him) or getting down and dirty with the pigs, she is willing to do it. What she doesn’t know, she learns (which is why she and Tom Branson make such a great team, imho). She will save that estate while all the others fall.
I think it’s more than just a literary coincidence that both Tara and Downton Abbey were saved by strong women. Women’s history is all too often swept under the carpet of academic study, but we can still find it in literature and personal accounts. Whether it’s the Civil War or WWI, when the men went off to fight, the women stayed home and ran their estates. Men may have controlled politics, but you can easily make the case that women ran the economy. More than a few great estates survived wars because clever women were behind the wheel. It’s just a shame that they had to hand over the reins once their men came home. Although if you dig a little, it’s pretty apparent that in many cases they didn’t.
So here’s to you, Scarlett and Mary! I hope that we have strong women like you around when our modern house of cards falls down.
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