Why I appreciated Anna's storyline in Season 4 of Downton Abbey

By Tuesday, July 08, 2014 , , ,

[Spoilers from multiple seasons of Downton Abbey are contained in the following text]

I freely admit that I was shocked when I realized what was happening in an early episode of the latest season of Downton Abbey that aired at the beginning of the year. I shook as I saw one of the drama’s most loved characters, Anna Bates, be dragged into a room near the kitchen by an evil guest valet, Mr. Green. A shot of the empty hallway with her cries echoing through the downstairs area sent chills down my spine. The striking performance of an opera singer upstairs covered her screams and had the rest of the household so enraptured that few noticed her absence. Perhaps the worst part was seeing Anna afterwards: bruised and bleeding with torn clothes, she confides in the housekeeper, Mrs. Hughes, and desperately swears her to silence, saying no one can ever know, not even her adoring husband, Mr. Bates.

I never pictured a rape storyline in Downton. Nor did many others, judging by reactions I encountered afterwards. I heard complaints that it was too shocking, shouldn’t have been included, and even that it was used to make Mr. Bates a more sympathetic character. I heard things like, “That was so unnecessary! I just couldn’t handle it after that!”

So, I started thinking about why this storyline was so upsetting. Some even said it ruined the show for them. Personally, I couldn’t have stopped there simply because I couldn’t imagine leaving it on such a sad note. I had to have faith it would get better! (And it does, I promise! :)) But why so much resentment over this plot line? There had been upsetting events in Downton before, but the uproar over this one was unusually high. But I’ve concluded that as difficult and shocking as Anna’s rape was, I was able to appreciate it. Don’t misunderstand – I was pretty shaken up afterwards and wondered why the writer would do that. I do kind of wish Anna and Bates had a happier storyline in that season. But after some thought, I saw that it served good purposes and still created a story with the depth and intrigue for which Downton is known. I decided this after reading and watching multiple interviews with the writer, Julian Fellowes, and Joanne Froggatt, the actress who plays Anna. Here are my two cents, whatever they’re worth.

Though the scene is shocking and intense, nothing gruesome is shown. What was shown simply ensures that the audience knows what’s happening. To his credit, Fellowes was adamant that the act itself should not be shown. He said that the goal was not merely shock value. Their focus was not on the rape itself, but on the emotional journey Anna and Bates would take afterwards. They could have sensationalized it by depicting it graphically, but they didn’t want to focus on that part, and I applaud them for that. Given the intense content, I believe they handled it delicately. According to all I’ve read, that was certainly the goal, and I commend them.

Next, I think this storyline garnered protest because it is a sensitive topic. Yet, it’s a social issue, and Downton has masterfully tackled a plethora of those. So why not this one too? Yes, it is very serious, but isn’t Sybil dying in traumatic childbirth also critically serious? Why should we be more upset about the show addressing this issue than any of the numerous others addressed elsewhere in it? To name a few: wartime death and injury, infertility and miscarriage, pregnancy out of wedlock, homosexuality, racism, divorce, abortion, post-traumatic stress disorder, prostitution, depression, adultery, death in childbirth, emotional/psychological abuse, gambling, and suicide. You name it, and Downton has likely given it a nod. And I think that’s one reason it’s popular – it doesn’t shy away from difficult subject matter, and in the setting of early twentieth century Britain with its harsh class divides and societal expectations, the characters’ struggles seem more intense and admirable. So, like with any of these other issues, the rape storyline offered a complex and difficult situation for the characters to navigate.

Another reason I think so many people bristled at this storyline was because it was Anna. Previously, there was nothing disturbing attached to her, and she is probably the most lovable and kind character. But there was purpose in that too. The writer and the actress said the goal was to show what that situation would have been like for a woman of Anna’s status in that day. Rape is a largely under-reported crime today, and was even more so in 1922. Women still had very few rights, and in court, the word of a working-class woman like Anna would not have been trusted over the word of a man. And even if it was trusted, society would still see it as a stain on her record. Unfair as it was, the prevailing thinking at that time was still, “He’s just a man; he couldn’t help it.” And fair or unfair, all that a woman of Anna’s status had was her reputation, so an attack like that would be a shameful mark on her, and she could lose everything. That’s the difficulty the show was trying to illustrate, particularly through Anna’s painful reluctance to tell anyone. 

Also, there was the goal of simply bringing the issue to light. There is still debate today on whether rape could be the victim’s fault, but the show made it crystal clear that it was not Anna’s fault. Julian Fellowes even said that was one of his purposes in writing it:  

“It was very important that it should be completely clear that it is not the victim’s fault at all. This was a chance to make the argument for the innocent rape victim who has done nothing to deserve it. And Anna, as either the most sympathetic character or certainly one of them, the audience could immediately grasp, she had done nothing to deserve to this. There is no sharing of guilt, no blurring of the edges of responsibility.” (Click here for full article) 

As mentioned previously, the emotional trauma for Anna and Bates and how they work through it afterwards was the focus of their storyline for most of the season, and it is written honestly, inviting the audience to sympathize with real people who face such hardship. Difficult as they are to watch, I think most people could benefit from watching the scene after the attack when Anna confides in Mrs. Hughes and many scenes between Anna and Bates later on. The scene directly after the assault and many things Anna says later broke my heart, not merely for the fictional characters of Anna and Bates, but more for the countless women who actually struggle with similar feelings that Anna voices: 

I feel dirty.

I can’t let [Mr. Bates] touch me. I’m not good enough for him now because I’m soiled.
I let it happen.
(To Mr. Bates) I am spoiled for you! And I can never be unspoiled. 

Hearing these things reminded me that there are women everywhere who fight those same feelings of shame and fear. I can’t presume to know what such an attack would be like, but I can guess that I would feel those very things Anna says. It was a good reminder. And I think seeing it would be helpful for men too. It would give them a glimpse into how destructive an attack like that would be on a woman’s self-worth and emotional and mental stability. Additionally, Bates’ reaction to the incident after he finds out helped me understand how a husband of a rape victim or any male close to her would process it. Of course I got frustrated at him for actually trying to hunt the guy down and kill him (It doesn’t help, Bates! Come on! Do you really want to go back to prison?!), but I was reminded that a man in that situation probably would face restlessness, grief, and severe anger at the attacker and at himself. When he first finds out, he weeps alone in a corner, anguished over such violence against his wife he loves so fiercely. And later, he tells Anna that he feels he failed to protect her, that he should have prevented it. And wouldn’t any man in that situation feel that? So I would think. I don’t buy the idea about the rape being a sexist story twist to elevate the man. Anna and Bates both have many scenes that show they’re trying to work through their feelings and the damage done, some individually and some together.

So I think the storyline does an excellent job of identifying with people who have been in that situation and of asking others to realize that someone closer to them than they think might be struggling similarly. Joanne Froggatt, who plays Anna, said she received a letter from a woman who had been raped when she was young but had never told anyone. She explained that the woman thanked her for playing the part as she did and Julian Fellowes for writing it:
“She felt for the first time that she wasn’t alone after watching Anna’s story. If one person felt like that, then I totally stand behind what we did.” (Click here for full article)

I’ve decided I agree. Yes, it’s difficult and painful to watch. But it highlights an important issue, and it pointedly reminds the viewer that someone nearby could be facing a similar situation. And personally, I believe the scene in which Bates tells Anna he knows what happened is one of the most powerful, moving scenes between them in any Downton season so far: 

Anna: [crying] “Well, it’s in the open. No more secrets. I’m glad of that at least. No more fear of being found out, because I am found out. My shame has nowhere to hide.”
Bates: “Why do you talk of shame? I don’t accept that there is any shame in this.”  
Anna: [crying harder] “But I am spoiled for you! And I can never be unspoiled.”  
Bates: “You are not spoiled! You are made higher to me, and holier because of the suffering you have been put through. You are my wife, and I have never been prouder, nor loved you more than I do now at this moment.” 

Talk about gut-wrenching! It was so touching, and it emphasized that there is healing, even from something that horrible. It simply has to be accepted. Anna resisted it, fearing her husband would think her polluted. But he received her tenderly, reassuring her that he was still there for her and that they would work through it together. And that reminds me that I have a Savior Who not only loved me even after seeing me where I was most ashamed, but also made me whole, pure, and holy at the cost of His own life. And that is a beautiful reminder indeed.

Anna and Bates enjoying a day at the seaside with the rest of the staff in the season 4 finale. All is not said and done yet, but they've certainly come a long way since the beginning of the season!

These links were helpful as I thought through the storyline and the issue of rape today:

*I do not own the rights to the photo in this post. Photo used was retrieved from credited Internet source*

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