Matthew, the master of Downton’s destiny, finds himself torn between the past, the future – and his fiance
23:36 GMT, 7 September 2012
Matthew Crawley is a man trying to walk a straight line on shifting sands.
Brought up as the middle-class son of a Manchester doctor, he expected little more than to work, marry a girl-next-door and raise a family of his own.
Instead he has been thrust into the role of earl-in-waiting as the closest male heir to the Earl of Grantham, his third cousin once removed, and he has fallen in love with Mary, a woman who is not so much next-door as next-county.
Matthew Crawley is a man trying to walk a straight line on shifting sands
After breaking off his first engagement to Mary because he couldn’t trust her motives for marrying him, Matthew thought he had made a better choice in the sweet Lavinia Swire.
Only she then died – as he believed, of a broken heart – shortly after she discovered him kissing Mary. For this, he can never forgive himself, explains Dan Stevens, who plays Matthew. ‘The situation with Lavinia haunts him. He feels responsible for her death.
And it takes him a long time to come to terms with that.’ He is burdened by the pressure from all sides to reunite with Mary, despite his love for her. But having made the leap at last, he is determined to do his best by them both.
Somehow it is rather lovely to see Matthew enjoy the frivolous, flirtatious pleasures of a love affair. He is so tortured by his conscience that one doesn’t think of him as a happy-go-lucky young man. Matthew needs to learn to enjoy their carefree moments together.
But the young heir is the perfect symbol of the tension between the old and new worlds that was simmering as the 1920s began. He sees the opportunity for change.
When Mary’s sister Sybil marries Tom Branson, the chauffeur, Matthew becomes something of an ally to Tom: ‘I’ve told you before, if we’re mad enough to take on the Crawley girls, we have to stick together,’ Matthew tells him.
As they face new challenges, the Crawley family and the servants who work for them remain inseparably interlinked
This desire for change is not only driven by social politics, but more soberingly the aftermath of the war, too. Many of the soldiers who fought in the trenches lost respect for the distant generals who commanded them with such incompetence. Many of the old habits of deference were lost, and this affected all strata of society.
It is even doubtful how much Matthew looks to his future father-in-law Robert for guidance. He recognises Robert’s priorities are with preserving things as they are. In other ways, though, the two are close.
Matthew’s father died when he was quite young, and Robert has never had a son, so the two relish the chance to build their relationship along such familial lines.
There’s no denying Matthew is a lucky man – the only person at Downton to have seen active service and survive unscathed in the long term, he’s the heir to an estate and about to marry his true love. Yet he is not a man at ease. He yearns for a simple life but knows the duty of an aristocrat is to provide employment – even for a valet to fasten his cufflinks.
When it comes to the future of Downton Abbey itself, Matthew puts his principles ahead of its rescue, something Mary finds hard to comprehend. Lavinia’s father, Reginald Swire, has named him as an heir but Matthew cannot accept the money, because of his guilt over Lavinia.
It is anathema to Mary that he should put his feelings before the fortunes of their ancestral seat.
Matt Milne as Alfred, Shirley Maclaine as Martha Levinson in the third series
The young couple also have yet to decide where they will live as husband and wife. Mary, of course, wants to stay at Downton Abbey. But Matthew wants to live in a plainer manner. He sees the future is bright but is wise enough to acknowledge its uncertainties.
Britain’s grand estates faced parlous futures in the post-war era as higher taxes, labour shortages and the pressure to modernise their working practices took a toll on aristocratic landlords stuck in their traditional pre-war ways.
Julian Fellowes says, ‘Matthew sees no point in replicating that life even if he has got comfortable with living in the house and on the estate. But that internal tension existed. Matthew represents the feeling that if it’s going to survive, it’s got to change – and he’s right.’