Sybil Crawley

There is a deluge of bitter melodrama in ‘Downton Abbey’, but the youngest Crawley daughter plays no part in it. Instead, Sybil is consistently agreeable, gentle and compassionate, with ambitions to further herself so she can further the world. Portrayed with gaiety by Jessica Brown Findlay, Sybil is so modern in her thinking and frustrated by her Georgian cage that she’s almost like a time-traveller landed in some bizarre new land…

Spoiler Alert
At first, Sybil just has fun with the world she’s found herself born into. There’s a tried and tested convention in her character: she’s the youngest of her siblings. So as the pattern goes, she’s free from the responsibility of heading up the family — much like George V (monarch of the time) was originally thought to be. Freedom from responsibility means the freedom to be herself.

It’s how many of us would behave when showered with privilege, acceptance and riches: enjoy our lot however we can, as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone. Like when Sybil gleefully purchases a dramatic new fashion, swirling around in a vibrant harem dress while her conservative family look on with a mix of horror and amusement.

But even in this, Sybil is already showing signs of rebellion, realising as we would that her life is in fact something of a cage. Trying controversial fashion is a small, safe way of testing that line.

Although she is full of adventure, a whimsical desire to run barefooted over the corpses of her oppressors is really not what Sybil is about. Her priority is compassion; Mrs Hughes called her “the sweetest spirit under this roof”. In her little cage, she can’t reach out to those in need.

But she always tries. Remember Gwen the housemaid, who wants to leave service and become a secretary? When Sybil discovers this ambition she supports her directly and without hesitation. "I think it's terrific that people make their own lives!” she assures Gwen. “Especially women."

Sybil is already going in the right direction when the choeffer drives her further. His name is Branson, an Irish radical with passionate socialist ideals. He wants to stir the waters while Sybil prefers the calm, but he’s exactly what she needs: a catalyst. It’s as if a fellow time traveller has come to join her, reminding her that actually, no, this isn’t where she belongs. She has to push for a future she’ll be happy in, and he tells her this directly.

Although known to be a sweet innocent, Sybil is exposed to a smidge of the outside world through political rallies and then more later as the First World War begins its deadly reign. She’s not supposed to see any of this. But she does, and it’s enough for her to want to do something about it.

So begins Sybil’s training as a practical soul. She becomes a nurse, and even visits the kitchen to learn how to cook. There’s a lovely moment when Sybil is preparing a cake as a surprise for her mother, Lady Grantham. Watching her daughter, she smiles: she was worried about her, but isn’t any longer. Sybil has found a purpose; something every intelligent modern person strives for.

But Sybil feels powerful even after the satisfaction of her nursing career; after all, she was born in blissful ignorance but now she’s been enlightened. There’s a world out there, and as an aristocratic girl subjugated by tradition she has no way to be a real part of that world. “I know what it is to work now”, she explains. “To have a full day. To be tired in a good way. I don't want to start dress fittings or paying calls or standing behind the guns.”

And that’s where Branson seizes a bigger role in her life. At first, she doesn’t seem to love him the way he loves her. He promises to devote every waking hour to her happiness, but in doing so he’s missing the point; she wants to help others, not herself. Despite her sheltered beginnings, Sybil is sometimes too practical for Branson’s flyaway romance. But he can open the world for her. “You won't mind burning your bridges?” he asks. And to begin with, Sybil is so keen to adventure that she laughs; “Fetch me the matches!”

Unfortunately, the grand unveiling of her future is not quite the adventure we hoped for her. By the time she marries Branson, Sybil has already shaken off much of her naivete — though thankfully none of her compassion. She expects the money troubles, the drastic change in lifestyle; even the dangers indicative of her husband’s political leanings.

But we wanted the world to fall into her hands. She’d be a happy and hardworking young mother with a career in nursing and a voice in politics; all the while retaining her bond with her family, which is exactly what she wanted. But it wasn’t to be. Sybil died in childbirth, ironically because her father was too conservative, blindly respecting the words of a peer just because of his title instead of standing bravely in his daughter’s enlightened, modern world.

Sybil spent her entire short life shaking free her shackles and striving for a modern life. When she achieved that, her adventure ended. I like to think her own daughter will follow in her footsteps, challenging oppression with the powers of ambition, bravery, and kindness. Fighting for the right to be “tired in a good way”.
It's doing nothing that's the enemy.
The war is really over and it's time to move forward.
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Published on 1 October 2015
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