Welcome back to Pop Pedestal, the series where we pay tribute to pop culture personalities we admire. Up today is the Right Honourable Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham, inimitable matriarch of Downton Abbey.
I’m a woman, Mary. I can be as contrary as I choose.
Pedestal Profile: The Dowager Countess (played by Dame Maggie Smith) rules the roost at Downton Abbey, though her status as a woman means her son, Robert, is technically the boss. As proper as afternoon tea, her steely gaze and razor-sharp wit will still intimidate even the sweetest of solicitor’s daughters. As Downton is thrust into a more modern era, where a non-tails-having tuxedo may be worn at dinner (!), it’s up to the Dowager Countess to keep things royally real.
Admirable qualities: In a world populated with fancy Brits born with a silver spoon in one hand and a backhanded compliment in the other, the Countess reigns as the zing-delivering champ. No one can turn a phrase quite like she can, and when she utters lines like, “You are quite wonderful the way you see room for improvement wherever you look. I never knew such reforming zeal” (to her meddlesome cousin Mrs. Crawley), she might as well be flipping the bird. She’s also the funniest person on a show full of extremely funny people, and she manages it all with a mere raise of her regal eyebrow.
I have plenty of friends I don’t like.
Given her sheltered existence (when she asks Matthew what a weekend is you have to believe she has no earthly idea), her xenophobia, and her unreasonable attachment to tradition at the expense of others’ feelings, you’d think Lady Grantham would be unlikable. Hardly. One of her best qualities is her ability to cut through the bullshit and see things as they are—whether that means telling someone off who crossed the line (this means you, Sir Richard Carlisle!), or giving sage advice to one of her granddaughters when she needs it most—which sometimes makes her the nicest person on the show, and it certainly makes her the smartest. Though stubborn as Carson when it comes to Lord Grantham’s dinnertime (that’s for you Downton Abbey fans out there), Lady Grantham always knows when to forgive someone or let something go, a skill that can be chalked up to the wisdom of her years (and Dame Maggie Smith’s out-of-the-park performance).
On top of all of that, the Dowager Countess is a fantastic dresser and makes being an almost-octogenarian look damn good. Check out that fierce dress and hat combo! You only wish you could look like that at her age.
Her influence: Downton Abbey has its aristocratic hooks in everyone these days, and I’m not the only one who finds Lady Grantham to be the most delightful part of a seriously delightful show. From a Facebook page to a Tumblr (or two or three), there are plenty of online tributes to Her Ladyship. Earlier this week, one of the least annoying “Sh*t ___ Says” videos came out, featuring—you guessed it!—the Dowager Countess:
That’s not all: The Countess exists not only in a fictional post-WWI world on PBS—she’s real! Well, sort of. Elizabeth McGovern (Cora, Countess of Grantham) is quoted in this week’s New Yorker saying, “There is a very present countess hovering beside us while we are filming—she is an interesting character who knows everything about the family history and is very bright… It is hard for them [the Countess and her husband], seeing their furniture being moved around.” Can you imagine the Dowager Countess managing with a film crew at Downton? I hope the show lasts for 90 more seasons so we can see it happen.
Think of her when: Think of the Right Honourable Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham when you’re in sticky social situation. Nothing fazes this woman, not even a newfangled swivel chair, and it needn’t faze you either. Also think of the Dowager Countess if you find yourself inheriting a large estate and a royal title—she might use tough love tactics, but there’s no one better to prepare you for high society.