During the long hiatus between Downton Abbey seasons, I have been contemplating why the Dowager Countess is so central to the show. Yes, of course, it is the magnificent acting of Maggie Smith that comes first to mind, but I am not focused on the acting so much as the power of the character Violet Crawley the Dowager Countess of Grantham – a power she possesses despite the absence of any authority whatever. Indeed, it is her son, Robert the Earl of Grantham, who has the nominal power. So how does the Dowager Countess so often achieve her own ends?
First, we have to admit that many of her goals are not laudable. For example, she cannot abide having her family exposed to an unwed former servant, Ethel Parks. Ethel has been taken in as a cook by the do-gooding mother of the Downton heir, Isobel Crawley. To achieve her goal of avoiding this dreaded exposure, the Dowager does something interesting. She spends a considerable time observing what others around her want and need.
For example, she knows that Ethel’s child has been adopted by a couple that lives at a distance from Downton. She sees Ethel leaving the local village store totally downcast – she is an outcast in the village, and is in fact miserable there, despite Isobel’s admonitions to buck up. The Dowager also knows that her own granddaughter, Lady Edith Crawley, believes she herself will be a spinster and is anxious to get a job as a journalist in defiance of her father the Earl. The Dowager’s support of the budding journalist against the Earl is conditioned on what seems a small request – that Lady Edith place an advertisement in the paper when she goes for an interview. That advertisement is for a new cook for Isobel Crawley. (Isobel knows nothing about her impending new hire and doesn’t want Ethel to leave).
Meanwhile, the dowager contacts the adoptive parents of Ethel’s child and arranges for Ethel to have an offer to work where she can see her child. Then, knowing Isobel will not be convinced by an aristocrat, the dowager has Ethel’s former Downton “downstairs” boss, the kind and indomitable Mrs. Hughes, persuade Isobel that it would be better for Ethel to live where others do not know her past. Mrs. Hughes says: “While she is in the village she is doomed to be reenacting her own version of the Scarlet Letter in Downton.” Isobel quite reasonably asks why the Dowager had not asked her first before placing an advertisement for her employ. The indomitable Dowager says, “I knew you wouldn’t agree because I know how you hate facing facts.” Isobel acquiesces and everyone ends up better off. Though the dowager’s motives were questionable, she has gotten what she needs and has enhanced the perception that she is a power to be reckoned with.
Here as ever, knowledge is power. But it is knowledge of a very specific sort. This knowledge is the key to the ‘win-win solution,’ also known as ‘integrative bargaining.’ It is knowledge of the desires and needs of others -- in particular others with whom you must negotiate or who can influence your negotiating partner. Often, because of a host of cognitive impediments, those of us in the middle of disputes find it extremely difficult to see our own real alternatives. Few of us make a practice of studying what other people need or want, or consider ways to help them as we help ourselves -- particularly when the other people are on the other “side.” We rarely cast our nets wide enough to see the opportunity to achieve our own desire while allowing others to benefit as well. The Dowager Countess has something to teach us all.