Joan Frawley Desmond, is the Register’s senior editor. She is an award-winning journalist widely published in Catholic, ecumenical and secular media. A graduate of the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies of Marriage and Family, she lives with her family in California..
Fans of Downton Abbey rejoiced at the close of last year's Season 5, when Mrs. Hughes, the wise, middle-aged housekeeper and spiritual heart of the household, accepted a proposal of marriage from Carson, the aging law-and-order butler.
But in the first episode of Season 6, which aired on PBS last night, the television audience held its breath as Mrs. Hughes appeared to backtrack on the marriage plans.
“I’m not sure I can let him see me as I am now,” Mrs. Hughes confides to Mrs. Patmore, the cook.
Mrs. Patmore offers sensible advice: “Then keep the lights off.”
But Mrs. Hughes considers another solution: their marriage could be a close friendship without the awkwardness associated with exercising conjugal rights.
Mrs. Patmore is dispatched to float the counteroffer. Carson politely, but firmly, declines.
“I want us to live as closely as two people can for the time that remains to us on Earth,” he says.
“Well then,” replies Mrs. Hughes “If you want me, you can have me. To quote Oliver Cromwell, ‘warts and all.’”
The show’s writers don't exactly take sides in this negotiation. But like other problems that arise in the series, our understanding is enriched by a contrasting story: the very modern decision of Lady Mary Crawley, the daughter of the Earl of Grantham, to have sexual relations with a prospective husband, in order to evaluate their sexual and emotional compatibility.
After the tryst, Lady Mary determines they are not suited. The spurned man is humiliated, and Mary is later threatened, in Season 6, with exposure by a blackmailer.
The love Mary offers her suitor is conditional, and swiftly withdrawn.
Carson accepts Mrs. Hughes unconditionally. And his refusal to take part in a counterfeit marriage reminds us that the "one flesh" union of a husband and wife should not be confused with "recreational sex." Rather, it is the same union that consummates the married love of Adam and Eve.
Further, Carson cherishes his future wife for her radiant generosity and wisdom. He isn't tempted to compare her physical attributes with the celluloid feminine ideal peddled by Hollywood, and now by the pornography industry. His response reorders Mrs Hughes confused priorities, and upholds her full dignity. Downton's housekeeper is worthy of a real marriage.
Downton's world is changing, and so has our's. We live in the age of the imperious Lady Mary. Beset with skepticism and anxiety, she fears marrying the wrong man more than living alone.
But true love exists. The first step is to prepare oneself to be the "right" man or woman who is capable of attracting the "right" spouse. And once you find such a person, you don't take a test drive.
Time for Carson to have a quiet chat with Lady Mary, don't you think?