I plead guilty to being a Downton Abbey junkie. I am not sure, however, why that BBC drama series is so appealing. It is essentially a soap opera. The plots and sub-plots – the number of which would boggle Leo Tolstoy’s mind – are often improbable and inconsistent. There are rifles over the mantle left unfired; that is, loose ends left all over the place. And It makes liberal use of the Deus ex Machina to extract characters from tight spots. Nevertheless, the series has gained a loyal following, especially in this country. Downton has survived four seasons, and a fifth is in preparation. As usual, there are open questions about what will happen to some characters that build anticipation.
One of the sub-plots involves John Bates, valet to the Earl of Grantham, and his now wife Anna Smith Bates, the head housemaid and maid to first daughter Lady Mary. Bates and Anna throughout the series have had a relationship made rocky, not by their passions or proclivities, but by external forces. Most significantly, Bates has escaped the clutches of a vindictive estranged wife, of whose murder he was accused, convicted, and sentenced to hang. He was exonerated and restored to his beloved Anna partially through her efforts as well as that of his employer Lord Grantham. Now, the latest potential fix Bates and Anna find themselves himself in poses an interesting moral issue often portrayed in fiction, and occasionally in real life.
It is not necessary here to relate all the couple’s trials and tribulations during the first three Seasons of the show even if the reader has not been a Downton Abbey fan. Suffice it to say that Anna and Bates met at the manor, and though star-crossed, fell in love, and eventually married. The main obstacle to their getting together and marrying was that Bates was already married, however estranged. At that time in England, divorce was exceptionally difficult, but that obstacle to their happiness was removed when the estranged wife died of poisoning. Another obstacle immediately popped up in that Bates was accused of murdering her, tried, convicted, and sentenced to hang. The first Deus occurred when the sentence was commuted; the next when through the efforts of Anna, evidence was discovered which exonerated Bates, and he was released from prison.
During the first episodes of Season 4, the couple’s life is happy but uneventful, except for an occasional benevolence that demonstrates their good character and loyalty to the Grantham family. Anna, caught alone one evening by one Green, the valet of a visiting nobleman who is a suitor to Mary, is accosted and raped. She is discovered in her ravished state by the head housekeeper Elsie Hughes. Fearful that she might not be believed it was rape, and further that Bates will kill Green if he discovers what happened, Anna swears Elsie to silence. The two women concoct a story that Anna tripped and fell down the stairs to explain her injuries and change of clothes. Nevertheless, the couple’s relationship is palpably changed, and Bates cannot figure out why.
Bates later discovers that Anna had been raped, though she maintains it was an interloper, and not Green, fearing that Bates would kill Green and be hanged for murder. Nevertheless, it is hinted that Bates knows it was, and at the end of episode seven, it is related that Green was killed in an improbable accident in London at a time when Bates was away from the Abbey and ostensibly in York. Elsie and Mary later find evidence that he really went to London that day. The unstated, though clear implication, is that Bates decided that taking the law into his own hands was preferable to reporting the deed to the police and letting the criminal justice system take its course.
Because Bates and Anna are such appealing characters, and the valet Green is a despicable one, it is a good guess that the majority of the audience applauded Bates’s action, assuming that he did it. The moral issue of course, is whether it is ever appropriate for an individual to take the law in his own hands and do justice by punishing a wrongdoer without due process of law. This is a theme in quite a bit of literature, and most of the time authors portray such action to be sympathetic to the wronged individual settling the score by him or herself.
That is what happened at the end of one of the most renowned 20th Century American novels. The real denouement of To Kill a Mockingbird not the trial, verdict, or death of the wrongly accused defendant, but the manner of the principal villain’s fate. The neighborhood recluse, who has been a kind of surreptitious guardian angel looking after lawyer Atticus Finch’s children, saves their lives by killing their attacker, the wicked Bob Ewell. It is clear what happened, but ever the lawyer Atticus believes that there should be a formal proceeding to confirm that Boo Radley was justified. Sheriff Tate refuses. The sheriff says that Ewell deserved what he got, he is not going to expose the shy Radley to public scrutiny, and that the man did Finch and his children a service. He concludes that while he might not be much, he was “sheriff of Maycomb County, and Bob Ewell fell on his knife.”
A number of writers have criticized Mockingbird as condoning vigilantism and obstruction of justice. In their world, there should always be accountability, especially when a human being is killed by the hand of another, however justified it may be. Well, maybe not. The villain was reprehensible. Exoneration of his killer is a forgone conclusion, and the expense of sorting it out, and trauma to the emotionally challenged recluse who saved the day is, well, akin to killing a mockingbird.
In early 20th Century Britain, the setting for Downton Abbey, a woman accusing a man of rape would be forced to testify in open court, face her former attacker, have her sexual history and conduct questioned, and be subject to the opprobrium of a society where a rape victim was often considered to have brought it upon herself. To do justice by taking the law into one’s own hands and punishing the attacker informally seems to be the righteous way. The legal way seems barbaric by comparison.
Alas, in real life things are not quite so cut and dried. We cannot make up the facts, as fictional authors do. There are a lot more ambiguities and obscurities that would just as often cause an injustice, or more important, an affront to individual liberty. One fictional work that brings this home is Walter Van Tilburg Clark’s The Oxbow Incident (1940). Clark’s novel, and the 1943 movie adapted from it, bring home the danger of vigilantism. The plot involves an informal posse who seeks to apprehend and punish cattle rustlers who reportedly had murdered a rancher and stolen his herd. The posse finds two men who, circumstances suggest, are probably the culprits. Rather than arrest them and take them in for a trial, the men are hanged on the spot. Later it is discovered that the real rustlers have been caught elsewhere and the allegedly murdered rancher is alive and well. Two innocent men were killed for no good reason.
The scenarios set up in fiction, where the author has control of the facts, generally come across as clear-cut. The average reader or viewer has no reason to doubt the moral rightness of killing an attacker, who himself clearly intends to kill two small children, to prevent that murder. In a clear cut case, should the person who kills to defend himself or others be subjected to the psychological trauma and expense of then defending himself? Who makes that decision? It varies. There have been cases where witnesses decline to come forward. That seems to be what is happening in the Downton Abbey sub-plot. Police officers like the sheriff in Mockingbird look the other way. Prosecutors have discretion, and most of the veteran ones know who bad guys and good guys are.
I understand that in Great Britain, the use of deadly force in self defense or defense of property is illegal and punishable in almost any case. Most of the states in this country, on the other hand, have laws that allow for such defenses. Many protect a person using deadly force against civil liability as well. Nevertheless, no jurisdiction that I am aware of allows a victim or victim’s family members or close friends to hunt down a perpetrator after the fact and punish him. That is the morality of crime syndicates, Middle Eastern tribal societies, and drug cartels.
The lesson is that those who yearn for perfect justice in this world are bound to be disappointed. Systems that demanded strict justice from the law, such as the lex talonis, appear to have caused more injustice than otherwise, especially the more hyper-technical they became. The correct view is that, at least in our legal system, law is really not about justice. Its purpose is to safeguard ordered liberty. Law protects individual freedom and life, liberty, and property up to the point where it transgresses upon that of others. In the seeking of that goal, pure justice sometimes must give way. That is why the principle that it is better to free ten guilty persons than to convict an innocent prevails. Justice occasionally is not served, but ordered liberty is. And that’s a good thing.
Ten months from now (somewhat earlier if in Britain) we’ll find out what Mr. Bates really did, or did not do. As quirky as Downton Abbey’s creator Julian Fellows has been, I’m not making any predictions.
2 replies on “Upstairs, Downstairs, Mockingbirds, and Ox-Bows”
Bates: not guilty of killing Green. Wanna place a bet?
Gary, You may well be correct. Julian Fellows is not Thomas Hardy or Franz Kafka. But, I'm still not making any bets.