Title: Strange New World
Characters: Violet, Cora, hints of Mary/Matthew and Sybil/Branson
Summary: Violet Crawley, and five moments in the birthing chamber.
Notes: Inspired after S2E01 and Violet talking about 'great-aunt Roberta' - who've I've elaborated on somewhat...
Violet Crawley, young wife of the equally young Earl of Grantham, prides herself on having never been afraid. Never. Not when her elder sister took the ship and sailed to India, not when her father dropped down dead in his evening soup of a heart attack, not even when she was walked, ignorant and unaware of the deeds between man and wife, to her bedchamber on her wedding night. But now, lying in a sweat-soaked bed with her body being split open from the inside, she can happily admit that she is terrified.
No-one is with her. Well, not strictly true; the village midwife, her maid and the housekeeper are all clustered around the bed, and she knows poor Edward is pacing up and down the hall and sending little Lizzie the scullery maid to check on proceedings every ten minutes. But her sister is in India. All her cousins are abroad. Her mother does not deign to set foot in the birthing chamber, dubbing such places unhygienic and offensive, and will only consent to comfort her youngest child when the baby born and bathed, when the linens are changed and her daughter is washed. She is, in every sense, utterly alone.
Her nails cut deep into the palms of her hands until the blood runs, she grits her teeth until they scrape and grind. White-hot fire streaks through her being, but she won't cry out. Not yet. She won't give anyone the satisfaction of seeing her suffer.
Oh, she misses Roberta. Her darling older sister, who smoked like a chimney, played cards with foreign diplomats and horrified their ghastly mother when, upon turning eighteen, turned down the frightfully rich Earl of Derby's marriage proposal and went off to live in India with the Hindoo people instead. How terribly shocking – and how terribly wonderful as well.
They're whispering, down at the foot of the bed, as if they think she can't hear them. The baby. Stuck. Something about a difficult birth.
"If," she pants, for she is only just turned nineteen, and still rather young and melodramatic at that, "if I die – you must tell my sister – must inform her – "
The midwife, in a rather aggravating display of familiarity, chucks her beneath the chin before she can even finish her sentence. "Bless you, my little lady, you'll not die just yet! See, he's on his way even now!"
"He?" She gasps, but then the midwife grasps a knife, reaches down, and gives an almighty wrench. Another blinding pain courses up through her, as if she'd sat on the sun itself, and suddenly there is the piercing wail of an indignant soul introduced to the world.
Moments pass, minutes even, and she's vaguely aware of being scrubbed down and changed, hustled into a bed with fresh linens, being embraced by her husband. Someone calls for water and pours it down her throat. She doesn't notice. From somewhere in the distance she can hear herself crying – crying! her! – snivelling either, with a great exuberance that her mother will be sure to criticise. She doesn't care. All she can do is stare down with a certain sense of wonder at this little thing, this being that she and Edward – no-one else! – have created. A little hand reaches up, tugs at her finger thoughtfully, begins to gum on it with quiet contemplation.
It's the first achievement in her life that she has ever been proud of.
They name the child Robert, after her sister. Violet is sure that Roberta would approve.
"It's a strange new world for you out there," she whispers in one perfect, shell-like ear when everyone else has gone. "But I'll look after you, my darling boy. Just see if I don't."
When Cora goes into labour, twenty-one years old and ten months married, Violet expects a straight-forward, simple procedure. After birthing two babies herself and sitting in on Rosamund's first birthing, she knows how these things should go. An English lady does not bellow or huff like an unwieldy elephant; she retains a sense of dignity whenever possible, and restrains herself to a few cries of pain if absolutely necessary. Even in the battlefield of the birthing chamber, an English lady knows how to behave.
But Cora is an American. She does not do things in the way an English lady should. Instead she screams and curses the air blue, she throws a pillow halfway across the grand bedroom, she calls the local midwife a 'stroppy fat cow'. When her mother – a rather garish woman with too much perfume and too many jewels on her fingers who came all the way from Boston to care for her pregnant daughter – instructs her one too many times on the correct way of breathing, Cora hurls a glass tumbler at her head and orders her to leave the room until she can keep her opinions to herself.
Violet can't help but smile. Perhaps Cora is the type of daughter-in-law to whom one can warm, after all.
Oh, she's no shrinking violet, if you'll pardon the pun. She's no demure English rose who will stand silently behind her husband agreeing at his every word, all peaches and cream in her cheeks and a gentle sweep of golden locks her crowning glory. She will never melt into the background; she will never be a perfect pastoral wife. But she is something. When she is not birthing heirs and throwing furniture about the room she is something else entirely. She is quick, and clever, and bizarrely fashionable, and keeps a knowing spark in her dark eyes that is certain to infuriate some important people at some stage. She travelled all the way to England – so she confides with not a whit of shame – on a whim, simply to see what the air was like. She is, Violet realises, everything she once wished she had the courage to be.
When Mae Whittaker sweeps out of the room in a veritable cloud of scent Violet sits herself down in pride of place beside Cora's bed. Against all probability, she takes her hand and clasps it tightly.
"Not long now."
When the screaming, shrieking creature emerges in a burst of blood and other unpleasant things – how utterly distasteful the Almighty's plan of bringing forth offspring has always seemed to her! – and is announced to be a girl, she isdisappointed. How can she not be? An heir for Downton, that was all she asked. And the howling infant, as if sensing her dissatisfaction, pauses in its wailing, gurgles, turns one baleful eye towards her. A tiny fist waves, as if in defiance.
Against all odds, Cora bursts out laughing. Once again, Violet cannot help but smile.
There will be other children, after all. And this one is a fighter.
"Well done, my dear," she murmurs against all odds, and nods to her daughter-in-law, woman to woman. "Well done indeed."
When she enters the room Cora is sat in her bed, staring into space. O'Brien – bless the faithful woman's heart, she seems almost as stricken as her mistress – fetches a chair, fetches a jug of water, retreats fretfully behind the door. All that's left is Violet, and Cora, and the space where there should be a child.
All around is white, pure white and cream and ivory, as pure as a virgin's bridal gown. They've carefully scrubbed the blood away until there's not a spot of it left.
She sits on the edge of her chair, fiddles with a loose thread on her shawl, pours herself water; anything to distract her from the gaunt shell of a woman before her. Speaking is a Herculean task. She murmurs something about checking up on Robert, but the words echo in the space between them. For the first time in an age she is discomforted. She wishes she had invited Mae to England, dreadful though the woman is, after all. A daughter needs her mother at a time like this. And what can she possibly say?
"They took him away," Cora whispers hoarsely. "I was bleeding, and then he came – and then they took my baby away."
How could this happen? How could this happen to them?
"I felt him kicking – he could feel when I was in the bath, he liked it, he was always kicking when I was in the bath." The woman's voice rises and falls like a death knell all in itself. She hasn't wept, as far as Violet can tell – her cheeks are dry, her eyes are pale as death – but her voice is an empty tomb. "And then when I fell, I could feel him – in distress, I could feel it – and then he stopped. He just stopped."
Oh God, how could this have been allowed to happen?
"He just stopped," the woman murmurs, and for the first time her intelligent dark eyes rise to meet Violet's, "and I couldn't wake him up again."
Oh Cora! Violet cries out, and she's weeping, sobbing for the first time in years, not for a man who could have been the Earl of Downton and the solution to their problems, not for the endearing young boy who could have been her grandson, but for the frightened baby unable even to take its first breath of the world's air. She's crying, and Cora's crying, and she gathers her grieving daughter-in-law in her arms as she sits on the bed beside her, both in agony for a child that died distressed and alone without even having his mother to comfort him.
"Really Granny," Mary murmurs from her bed, still carrying a hint of that lazy drawl even after her ordeal, "you needn't gloat."
"Gloat, Mary; who's gloating?"
"You are. You needn't smile so, I can see it in your eyes."
Violet only raises her brows, and bends down to peer into the cradle, unable to stop from hugging herself as she does so. For Mary, astute to the last, is right after all. She is happy – more than that, she is victorious.
An heir for Downton, that was all she asked. An heir. And now she has one. It seems the boy shall be a grandchild of hers after all. A child, a boy-child, to once more toddle around the estate, to run through halls and tug on tapestries and make an unholy racket around the place..oh, she can hardly wait. It breathes new life into her blood.
"One heir – and one spare." Propping an arm behind her head, ever the picture of lazy glamour, Mary flashes a grin her way. "I never thought birthing twins would be so difficult."
Indeed not. Glancing down, her eyes feast almost greedily over the two swaddled babes lying together in the huge cradle that has housed Robert and Rosamund and Mary and Edith and Sybil all before. One all in blue, one all in pink. A boy and a girl. The start of a new dynasty for Downton. Harold Earnest Crawley – and, in a bizarre and rather annoying twist of fate, Violet Isobel Crawley. It seems she is to be paired with that dreadful woman until all eternity if the family is to have their way. She is not sure who planned the naming, although suspects Matthew in all of this.
She chuckles as little Violet Crawley, quite without artifice it seems, reaches out and biffs her brother smartly on the nose with one delicate fist. "Let us hope she has her namesake's strength of character and moral fibre then."
"Which namesake would that be, yours or Isobel's?"
A gimlet glare is cast in her direction. "Feeling better already, are you Mary?"
The young mother merely beams back, utterly uncowed. "Quite, Granny."
When the Branson fellow opens the door he very nearly faints. She can't help but feel a twinge of pride about that.
"Your ladyship – Countess Craw – I mean – I didn't – that is – "
"Thank-you Branson, that's quite enough for now," she intones, waving a hand imperiously. So many times she was ferried back and forth from the Hall to the Dower House by this young man and yet she never noticed more than the back of his head. Blond, she recalls. He's rather a handsome chap, now that she sees him, rather the sought that might take an impressionable young girl's fancy. But not to marry; never to marry. "I came to see my grandchild – and my great-grandchild."
He juts out his chin with more than a little shaking bravado. "My wife," he enunciates the word with great care, "needs her rest."
"Nonetheless, I wish to see her."
"But – "
Violet leans forward, and is reluctantly impressed when he doesn't recoil. "Young man, you have already causes enough turmoil to my family. I wish to see my granddaughter," her tone hardens, her hand grasps meaningfully against her stick, "now."
Wisely, he steps back.
It's so small here, small and cramped, and there's a dreadful smell of turpentine coming from the kitchen. The walls of the narrow hall are simply lined with bulging bookshelves. Is this what the servant classes do with themselves when they're not at work? Good heavens, no wonder they're all so poor. She can't help but turn her nose up in the air as she's led through the confines of the smart, but small cottage. Gracious, and Sybil left her place at Downton Hall for this?
Young Branson opens the door, reluctantly steps aside. And there she is – Sybil, the youngest, her secret favourite, lying in a tiny little bed in a tiny little bedroom and cradling a tiny little baby. Her hair is strewn about the pillow, her skin is drenched in sweat, and yet even during her presentation at court Violet cannot remember seeing her granddaughter look so – happy.
Tears are streaming down her cheeks. "I didn't think – I didn't think you'd come, I wrote to Mary, I told her when I was due, but I never thought, I never believed – oh, Granny…"
"Now then," Violet says, and then stops, because there's nothing she can say to this child that will make any difference – this girl who stood up in the middle of dinner one fateful night and announced she was jolly well going to marry her father's chauffer and no-one could make her change her mind, this girl who was cast out from the house with two suitcases and a defiant tilt to her chin as she walked away. Cora weeps, and Edith sighs, and Mary writes once a week, but Robert – Robert will come around eventually. His pride's been hurt, and she doesn't doubt the thought of losing his daughter to a revolutionary socialist frightens him more than he can say. Violet knows her son. In time, things will change. Isn't that what the young are always saying?
Instead she looks down at the baby cradled in her granddaughter's arms, miniature, fragile. Every inch of the child is precious. Its large blue eyes are blinking pensively, one set of petite fingers are being waved carefully in the air, as if contemplating how to fly. As well it might. Who knows what might be possible in this strange new world?
"We named him Edward," Sybil says eagerly, desperate to help, she's always been a child who can't bear the worry of others. "Tom had a brother who died in the war of that name, and I thought of Grandpa, and I just thought – well, I just thought you might like it." She merely smiles, and strokes her fingers against the blond wisps of hair crowning this new child's brow. And so everything comes full circle.
When Branson – Thomas, she shouldsay, but she's blasted if she will just set – shuffles in, his jaw still set determinedly, she arches an eyebrow. He shrugs defiantly, sits down on the bed, wraps an arm around his wife. One moment of hesitation, and then he presses his lips gently to her brow. Sybil closes her eyes, leans into the embrace, for one moment she could pass as the Madonna herself.
Roberta ran off with a fellow unbecoming to her station, she remembers suddenly, in between shooting natives and riding elephants that is. Her second husband, after the first had died at Lucknow. A younger man, a most wild-headed, bohemian fellow, an intellectual by all accounts. A most…unsuitable man.
"I am most impressed, Sybil," Violet says gently.
And then, in an aside to Branson, "And young man, if I do not hear glowing reports of how you are treating my granddaughter, there shall be consequences. Graveconsequences."
He nods sagely.
Marry a socialist chauffeur, live in a miserable little cottage, break contact from her parents, it doesn't matter. Sybil can do all these things and more.
She is family, after all. The child - this brand-new child - is family. And in this strange new world, what is more important than family?