On Corsets and Fear {One Word 2014}


Maggie Smith doesn’t wear a corset. She’s the only woman on the cast of Downton Abbey who doesn’t. I heard this bit of gossip at a recent event with visiting writer Jessica Fellowes, niece of Downton Abbey screenwriter Julian Fellowes. Smith says she’s served her time all these years of doing period dramas in the movies and on television. She’s flat-out done with the corsets.

That’s what I want to say to fear, the way it laces me up tense and leaves me gasping.

{Spoiler alert: The rest of this post gives away major plot pieces from seasons 3 and 4 of Downton Abbey.}

In the middle of season three, when Lady Sybil birthed her baby and the toxemia and seizures set in and Dr. Clarkson, Tom and the whole lot of them stood by unable to do anything but brace themselves for the inevitable, I laid awake that night thinking that could have been me and it could still be me if I don’t close shop on the childbearing days. It isn’t just a story element plopped in to let an actress out of her role in the series…it’s a real thing that has happened too many times to too many women.

Last year, I feared birth, though I’d braved it before. “Our bodies remember things,” a friend told me recently. Maybe it was the memory of back labor with my first two or the involuntary pushing that my body insists on when I haven’t quite made it to 10 centimeters. Or maybe it was the trauma of my own birth, the way my happy little bubble burst a month and a half early. I wasn’t ready and neither were my lungs. The nurses took me straight to the breathing machines and hooked me up to wires under the bulbs of an incubator. It was a week before my mom could hold me or nurse me. They had been too afraid to tell her I was probably going to die.

A lot of my life I’ve dragged my feet in fear, and all too often I’ve felt the glorious details of my day-to-day tainted with the dread that it will all end too soon, something like the way cheerful Matthew was hurtled from the car on his drive home from the maternity ward. Or the way the Bates’ happy marriage was so suddenly violated in season four.

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I fear the end (my own or losing someone I love) and I fear a lot of the things in the middle (like whether or not I’m ever going to get my bearings in motherhood and home). Sometimes I wake in the morning to find indentations in my palms where my nails have dug in. At the chiropractor as I lay face down, my legs are so tight they stick straight out into the air instead of laying flat on the table.

It’s not all bad. Fear, like a lot of emotions, can be useful in the right measure. Fear tells us when something is wrong. It can show us what’s important and where we need to act, just as fear of taxes and a disappearing upper class can get the Crawleys thinking creatively about how to farm unused land to live a more sustainable way of life.

But when fear becomes a constant and I find myself flinching over and again at the mere possibility of something going wrong instead of just reacting when it does, I know I need to relax and/or muster up some courage.

I do have a brave side, part of me that pushes through fear. I see it when I call a teacher about something that concerns me at school, when I birth three babies with no epidural, when I get vulnerable and share my mess-ups in the hopes that it will help another pilgrim soul, when I start a conversation with another mother I’ve never met while our kids play at the museum, or when I give in and sing a raw, unrehearsed hymn on the platform of my old church.

My cheeks heat up and I sweat a bit, but when I’ve muscled through the gauntlet of fear, I come out feeling surprisingly fearless.

I know I can’t get rid of fear altogether, but this year, I want to breathe more deeply, unclench my teeth and uncurl my fingers (unless I need them as fists). I want to keep moving forward just as those left behind at Downton have. I don’t know what Lord Julian Fellowes has in store, but the Lord of Lords is clear about what He has for me: “For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of love, power and a sound mind.”

When you’ve been doing fear this long, you get the itch to stand up and say you’ve done your time. Maybe that was how things were before the war, but this is now.

Burn the corset, or at least loosen it. It’s time for fear.less.

{This post contains an affiliate link for Jessica Fellowes’ fully-authorized companion book to the Downton Abbey series. This book contains close-ups of historically accurate realia from the set and connects it to the real-life history that inspired the setting and plot-lines. If you click on the link and make a purchase, I will receive a small commission at no extra charge to you, defraying some of the cost of running this blog.}

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10 thoughts on “On Corsets and Fear {One Word 2014}

  1. I have thought about the fear inherent in living in a different time – the open autos, the risky childbirth, the plague that took Matthew’s fiance – but it’s true there enough to fear right now if I let it overtake me. I love the way you have connected the corsets and the war and the new way of things with how we overcome our own fears. Thanks, Darcy.

    • Yes, things seemed so much less “safe” in their time and culture. Yet, I remember Matthew saying surely something could be done for Sybil with all of the medical advancements of the time. Interesting. But then, with our advancement comes more knowledge that often gives us more to fret about in our modern day.

  2. I want to read this. I really, really do. But you so kindly told me about the spoiler alert. So I will wait. Downton Abbey was all the talk out here among the m circle. I heard it was on the airplane, but the Turks apparently aren’t fans, so I was so disappointed. Thanks to really cool amazon on tv, I saw all 3 seasons last summer. I might have to wait a couple more years for the next bit. All that to say, I miss you, Darcy and am just babbling on. I read Uncle Tom’s Cabin last year, and was shocked that corsets actually caused death. Crazy what desire for beauty can bring us to, and how rebellious it seems when people choose to “disobey’ the norm.

    • So maybe it was a brave thing to actually wear the corsets…death-defying in fact! I’ve heard of other stories of beauty regimens causing death. I once visited a plantation in Louisiana and heard the story of the plantation owner’s daughter who had acne. The parents worked so hard to get her presentable that the treatments ended up killing her. P.S. Your story about snakes in your house has REALLY been ministering to me in some difficult days here. I haven’t taken time to comment there, but please know God is using your words and your amazing story.

  3. Corset. No way. Love the analogy. So true. Approval addiction is what I’m fighting lately. It’s still fear any way you slice it. Fear is a wilderness I’ve wandered forty years. Time for promised land courage.

    My favorite thing Joyce Meyer preached has always been, “Do it afraid.” That’s what I intend to do.

    Do “me” afraid without considering the desert of others opinions.

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