See, I got all excited because some stuff happened last week, and now this week we’re back to more repetition, sluggishness, and ridiculousness (not the good kind, the frustrating kind). And, like several other people, it seems, I’m really struggling to care about anyone. They’re either not likeable at all or not very interesting. I need one of those things in order to get invested.
But here goes.
John is taking care of business. He brings his father to a moneylender, who is the most offensive, cartoonish stereotype of a Jewish lender you could possibly even begin to imagine. We’re about five minutes into the episode and already I’m somewhat enraged.
The moneylender, not being stupid, refuses to lend Steven the money. Steven blusters about how he’ll eventually inherit his brother’s title and income, but the moneylender points out that that is likely many years away (put a pin in that) and Steven’s unlikely to make it that far anyway, which means the lender likely won’t get paid back. Everyone seems super convinced that Steven won’t live to inherit, even though he seems pretty hale and hearty. Is there something about his health we don’t know, or is it just that everyone assumes this gambling addiction will do him in eventually?
John is also working the Trenchard servants. He has Anne’s maid, Ellis, on the take now, so she heads over to the Brockenhurst house with a bogus story about Anne having left her fan there the other night. While there, she ingratiates herself with Caroline’s maid and tries to pump her for information, but Caroline’s maid quickly realises what’s up and sends the other woman packing.
Let’s take a second to talk about the servant dynamics here, because it’s one of the few times the show actually manages to subtly express class differences at this time. The servants at the Trenchards’ house in the city (but not the ones in the country, interestingly) are, almost universally, a surly lot. They are self-serving and show virtually no loyalty to their employers. That even goes for Mrs Trenchard’s maid, who’s been with her for more than 25 years.
(Which brings me to a tangent here: Ellis seems reasonably savvy. If she was with Anne all the way back to Waterloo, then wouldn’t she have known something was up with Sophia? Wouldn’t she have found it pretty odd that her employer, out of the blue, sent her daughter off to nowheresville for several months, only for the girl to suddenly die? Or, if Anne went with her, then Anne herself would have been MIA for several months, presumably without Ellis, to maintain all the secrecy. Either way, the circumstances here almost surely would have clued this woman in that something was going on. Add on that we find out in this very episode that the servants are quite clued in to the women of the household’s cycles and it becomes even more doubtful that Ellis wouldn’t have been aware of the fact that Sophia was pregnant. Or, at the very least, she probably could have quickly put two-and-two together. And yet, even though she knows she’s supposed to be digging up some deep, dark secret with this family, she can’t even fathom what it might be. Is Ellis kind of an idiot? I just find this very difficult to believe.)
Back to servant dynamics. As I said, the Trenchard servants are kind of jerks. They are disloyal sell-outs. But it’s very different in the Brockenhurst household. That place seems very well-run, and Lady B’s maid is definitely very protective of her mistress. This is almost certainly a class thing: servants, to some extent, took their rank amongst other servants from their employers. So being a servant to an earl put you above those who served the untitled in the pecking order belowstairs. And you’d better believe that servants leaned into that hard.
In addition, many lifelong servants considered it a particular honour to serve members of an old, aristocratic family. We saw this play out in Downton Abbey: Carson, especially, considered it a point of pride that the Crawleys were so distinguished, and he was deeply offended by the idea that serving such a family shouldn’t be considered the pinnacle of one’s ambition. And pretty much the whole staff considered serving the middle-class branch of the family to be beneath them.
It’s playing out again here: the Brockenhursts’ staff likely consider their jobs to be something to be proud of, because of who their employers are. But the Trenchards are vulgar new money, with no position. Their servants are way down the ladder, and they hate it. And they take that dissatisfaction out on their employers, to some extent.
There–that’s your rather long-winded history lesson for today (sorry!)
Back to the story: John tells the Trenchards’ butler, Turton, that he’ll have to go through his boss’s papers and see if he can find anything of use there. I’d say he’s unlikely to find anything, because you’d have to be an absolute dunderhead to keep evidence of this terrible secret in your desk at home, where anyone can find it, but we’re fast learning that it’s astonishing that this secret has been kept this long, so I’ll buy it.
Turton tells John that this’ll cost him a pretty penny, so John cheerfully steals some silver his mother has hidden away in order to pay the man off.
Meanwhile, Caroline, Anne, and Maria pay a visit to Charles’s office, under the pretense that they were in the neighbourhood to look at some silk. Is it a little weird that Caroline’s taking her nephew’s fiancee to visit some other guy Maria clearly has a crush on? Eh, I guess Caroline doesn’t like John very much.
Also, on the way there Caroline asks after the allegedly missing fan, which clues both women in on the fact that Ellis was lying and poking around where she shouldn’t be.
The ladies descend and Maria and Charles talk again about India. Charles also throws in some thoughts about slavery (bad! Unsustainable!) so we know we’re supposed to root for him. And then Maria literally leads them all in a round of applause for Charles, because he’s just that awesome.
Except… he’s not. I mean, I commend his entrepreneurial spirit and all, and he seems a nice chap, but as a character he strikes me as being a little bland.
But everyone in this story thinks he’s the bee’s knees. John, still sniffing about, shows up at the office right about this point, mostly to make everyone uncomfortable and make a crack about Charles’s head being full of cotton. The whole room hesitates, like they’re not quite sure if John’s insulting Charles or not. I just kind of laughed because that’s as close to a Dowager Countess-ism we can hope for.
John pivots from that to meeting up with Susan for another tryst and to ask her to spy on her in-laws. Said spying will involve Susan accompanying said in-laws to their country house, which she HATES. But she goes anyway.
While there, Oliver ends up throwing a wobbler about Charles over dinner. We’re back to his frustration over his father (and everyone else) showing so much favouritism to this seemingly random guy. In Oliver’s case, this overreaction is clearly coming from a pretty damaged place, though. He’s obviously spent a good chunk of his life being made to feel like the lesser child. He’s not interested in the building business, which is fine, because that’s not for everyone, but his father is making him feel like a loser because of it. He’s trying to put some effort in, and only finds his dad treating some replacement son to lunch instead. So I get why he just keeps bubbling over here.
But Anne’s response to this is to straight up laugh at and mock her son and now I feel like Anne is just a horrible person.
She’s also so terrible at keeping secrets, I can’t figure out how this one wasn’t sussed out years ago. During a chat with Susan, she actually starts to blurt out the fact that Charles isn’t a stranger. She attempts to cover (very poorly), and is so obvious about the whole thing that as soon as Susan gets back to London she tells John about the whole coversation.
She does not tell John that she’s pregnant with his child. Presumably he’ll figure that one out for himself soon enough.
Maria, meanwhile, is all googly-eyed over Charles. The two meet up in the park so he can tell her how in luuuuurve with her he is.
This whole plotline is an excellent opportunity to tick off a lot of boxes on your ‘period drama cliches’ bingo card.
She tells her mother she’s just not sure about marrying John, because she doesn’t think she loves him, or even particularly knows him. I’d like to point out that she doesn’t really know Charles, either. Her mother responds by saying that nobody of their class knows each other or has particularly loved-up feelings prior to marriage, because they only ever get to meet with chaperones at such.
Ok, this is a very exaggerated notion of upper-class marriage at this time. The idea that all of these people were basically strangers to one another before getting married simply wasn’t true. This was a very small, closed circle all of these people were moving in. They’ve known each other all their lives. They would have grown up knowing each other quite well indeed. They would have played as children, and gone to school together (well, the boys would have). Their families would have been closely intertwined.
Yes, it is true that you were choosing your spouse from a deliberately small pool, so you didn’t have 100% choice. And yes, of course families were likely to strongly encourage certain pairings. But you weren’t strangers, and there were many, many examples of people at the very highest levels of society who were deeply in love both before and after they married. (Queen Victoria, for example!)
And yes, young ladies were chaperoned at all times. But those chaperones did not hang right over their shoulders. Young couples were given semi-alone time together. And they could slip away for brief periods of actual alone time during parties and things, if they were slick about it.
This whole notion that aristocratic marriages were entirely loveless transactions is a tired trope. I’m not saying that such pairings didn’t exist–of course they did. But they weren’t the norm that they’re presented as, particularly by this time.
Anyway, Maria’s mother invites John over for dinner and gives them some time alone together. Maria tells John the same thing she told her mother, and he just parrots her mother’s whole line right back at her. Cool.
John doesn’t have to work hard here because he holds all the cards, in a sense. Maria has to marry him because her family has no money and he will. Someday.
Which is a little problematic to me, actually. Her family is out of money right now. (Presumably. They seem to be living very well indeed for poor folk, even poor folk with a title.) John does not seem to have any money himself–he is, after all, selling silver in order to pay off a servant. He has the prospect of money, but that seems some time off (as people keep pointing out). Anything could happen between now and then. He could very well die young, before he inherits, and without leaving an heir. Did Maria not have any other suitors who might have provided a more present solution to her difficulties? That seems unlikely, considering her all-around attractiveness (brains, beauty, and breeding). But it’s never addressed, so we’ll have to take all this as read.
Despite her present difficulties, Maria decides she’s not going to marry John after all. Of course not. Her head is full of Charles, which her mother is NOT having. Her mother vaguely threatens her daughter with…something if she doesn’t agree to marry John.
Meanwhile, Brockenhurst gives Steven some money so he can keep his creditors at bay. It’s not the full amount, but it’ll help. The heat isn’t off, but it’s lessened slightly. At least, until Steven starts gambling again, and you know he will, because that’s how addiction is.
Until next week!