Where Women Rule: Mr. Selfridge

Amanda Abbington as Josie Mardle

Amanda Abbington as Josie Mardle

Holed up over the winter with a broken wrist, fractured foot bones, and a flu that nearly killed me, I became rather attached to the BBC – lots of period costumes, tea, and wistful glances. In February I passed out in my bathroom and have no idea how long I lay there before thinking that my bed was just too damn hard. Yes, I had a flu shot… By the way, one can type up an entire MFA thesis with only one hand; I’m living proof. Being confined to my bed and/or couch for months and basically, being isolated from the chaos and drama to which I’d become accustomed, I pined for real human emotion – not yellow happy face emoticons on a Facebook page. As a result the BBC’s Mr. Selfridge became a bit of an obsession – due in no small part to the terrific female cast. In episode six, Mr. Selfridge himself wasn’t even in the show – and I didn’t care a whit…

Miss Josie Mardle is my hero – or rather, heroine. I live to watch her expressions to the caprice that rifles about her in one of the most fashionable stores in history. Within her exquisite, nuanced reactions reside more ardor and regret and longing than I’ve seen anywhere in a very long time…Confined by the Edwardian sensibilities of the early 1900s, Miss Mardle treads the precipice of obeying her desires while trying to observe the socially acceptable moral codes thrust upon women of her era. Amanda Abbington’s portrayal of a woman loved, scorned, trapped, and quietly torn apart, is at once breathtaking and transformative. It’s like watching the very best theater where a character is fully vested in the moment and we, the audience, are allowed access to the unbearable. The “unbearable” is where thwarted desire lives and alienation looms; it’s what great drama is made of.

Abbington in "Mr. Selfridge"

Abbington in “Mr. Selfridge”

See Abbington’s priceless chocolate reaction

Unlike Edwardian times, we work very hard to obfuscate our own alienation – that is the mantle of urban existence. We amass thousands of friends on Facebook and twitter with the hope that some poor like-minded sod will sift through our verbiage and commiserate with us. Behind the anonymity of our computer screens we participate in endless streams of cloud consciousness and proclaim authentic communication in our new solitude. Our modern alienation is a covert affair but for the female denizens of Mr. Selfridge, the fear of being left out, passed over, or ignored, is a palpable reality. The tragic, complex vision of human vulnerability is laid bare in each suspicious glance and in every catty remark; there is no “cloud” to hide behind. It is staggering when we are so boldly confronted with the thwarted desires of others – especially when the confrontation is so beautifully contextualized within the zeitgeist of an era as Mr. Selfridge is.

Kudos to writers Andrew Davies, Kate Brooke, and Kate O’Riordan for allowing their female characters to develop into such fierce and complex women. They have been allowed to evolve and react to the changing world around them; it is exhilarating to watch.

For Miss Josie Mardle the road has not been easy; she has worked hard to command respect from her peers. Her professional life as Head of Accessories provides her with the exalted status of the new “working woman”. Her Transcendent desires however, concern her heart and her soul and these are not so easily satisfied. Her carnal desires put her at odds with prevailing notions of femininity and morality that are very much a part of the Edwardian canon. It results in a confounding psychic battle that wreaks havoc and luckily, we get to witness that havoc in every blink of Miss Mardle’s eyes.


One of my favorite moments occurred in episode four when the debonair chocolatier Monsieur Neuhaus arrives to Selfridges’ to present a chocolate fest.

Miss Mardle had me at, “Thank you but I really don’t think it’s appropriate…”
Her unabashed glee as the chocolate entered her mouth – tumbling seductively from Monsieur Neuhaus’s slender fingers – could have melted even the icy seas on Pluto. It’s one of those rare television moments – genuine vulnerability. As Mary Watson in another BBC show, Sherlock, Abbington portrays the other half of Dr. Watson and her earthy presence is a welcome relief from plots that often, strain credibility. Unfortunately, she is utterly wasted in Sherlock. Sherlock is all about the boyz – and only two boyz at that [Don’t get me wrong – the boyz are fun, but…] Sherlock would benefit – in my humble opinion – by being darker and less whimsical. Coincidentally, that conceit was explored in one episode by revealing Abbington [as Mary] to be an ex-assassin. She even got to shoot Sherlock Holmes in the stomach – wow!. If I had been charged with writing the next script I would have had her take over his “consulting” role. However, the actor who plays Sherlock is evidently quite popular, though I can’t recall his name… Replacing him with a woman is probably out of the question, but I have no doubt Abbington would be up to the task.

Abbington as Mary Morstan in "Sherlock"

Abbington as Mary Morstan in “Sherlock”

The compassion and authenticity that Sherlock lacks, Mr. Selfridge has in spades – due primarily to the excellent female performances. Abbington, in particular, goes to that “unbearable” place that we all know exists but that we pray will never be visited upon us. In season one she confronts her married lover – Mr. Grove [Tom Goodman-Hill] – upon discovering that he has abandoned her after years and years of romantic trysts. She has literally, given him the best years of her life but once his wife dies he becomes engaged to a younger shop girl. Abbington’s reaction to his deceit is a sublime crescendo of repressed despair and wasted hope – not for a second overdone. The realization that she has been cast aside ricochets off the lustrous wood paneled walls of Groves’ office like a tidal wave and we are swept away with her.

Toward the end of episode six, as the handsome young Belgian border Florian [Oliver Farnworth] declares his love for Miss Mardle we collectively swooned. Oh yes, we did. A friend who was watching the show with me immediately threw up her hands and shouted, “Yes! Take that boy right now…” We want Miss Mardle to have those moments of unbridled passion – we want her to spurn the ridiculous conventions of society and follow her heart. Her passion represents the lost innocence of our collective youth and we root for her. We root for the all the women because they have no options other than to literally kick ass. They can’t hide behind a digital profile or rage in an anonymous post online. They function completely in the moment and have no alternative other than to navigate the overwhelming uncertainty of their lives. Those few seconds where Florian and Josie touch – where Miss Mardle’s need for human companionship outweighs her desire to preserve her reputation – stops our breath. Momentarily in Florian’s embrace, Miss Mardle’s conflicted emotions are betrayed; passion is something best pursued in our youth – it is a diversion in mid-life. But why can’t Miss Mardle have what she wants? After all, she has already rejected convention and paid the price. Must she really comply with society’s expectations of her? One might think that women have come a long way from Edwardian sensibilities but in our current economic debacle, financial and social independence for women has deteriorated. Life for many women has become insecure and uninspiring. The sovereignty of reason serves up a cruel reminder that life will not always conform to our most fervent desires and as a result, we succumb to states of spiritual decay. No so the women of Mr. Selfridge. Every week, I get to watch Miss Mardle grappling with her desires; I see a fragile arpeggio of lust, hope, and disenchantment wash over her face. I think that maybe, just maybe this one time she will get what she wants and the anticipation is divine.

~ ~ ~

You can binge on Mr. Selfridge and the celestial Abbington via Netflix and then, anticipate season three.

— Deborah Johnstone

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