“Her ladyship’s soap,” tells us all we need to know about Sarah O’Brien, doesn’t it? After all, who really missed Cora’s scheming lady’s maid? Besides Cora of course. Alfred seemed rather indifferent to the disappearance of his aunt and protector against the evil Mr. Barrow.
While Edith and Isobel have their detractors, it’s hard to argue that O’Brien isn’t the most disliked regular character on Downton Abbey (with the possible exception of Ethel). No one else on the show left soap on the ground to remove potential heirs from the equation. Something about writing O’Brien off simply because of the soap incident doesn’t sit right with me.
Is it murder? I don’t think the show thinks it is. Why? She was never punished for it. Characters in fiction don’t get to escape the guilt of murder scot-free, or by risking Spanish flu.
Beyond that, it’s ridiculous to assume that O’Brien could’ve placed the soap in such a way that it would guarantee a miscarriage. She also tried to stop it as it was happening, remarking that such was not in her character. If you want to hate her for ensuring that Matthew would remain the heir, fine, but O’Brien is actually a very complex character.
If you look at O’Brien’s relationship with Thomas, you might think that it simply came to be because the two were chain smoking villains. That’s really not all there is to the story. While, I suspect that she genuinely cared for Barrow, at least until series three, it was actually likely the other characters’ fault that the two were brought together.
Carson and Hughes are extremely picky as to whom they spend recreational time with. Carson only likes to hang out with Mrs. Hughes, treating Molesley like pure garbage even though the two are likely closest in age of the male servants. He’s happy when Bates comes back for some strange reason, but the two don’t spend any real recreational time together. It doesn’t appear that Carson would ever invite Bates to go fishing in ponds for limp correctors.
Hughes is a bit more complex due to the presence of Patmore, who is under her command even though the two don’t really work together, at least after Mrs. Bird lead the kitchen revolution to give Beryl control of her own pantry. The two are clearly friends. Hughes also plays a maternal role to Anna, Daisy, and to a lesser extent, Gwen.
Where does O’Brien fit into this? Hughes has her confidant in Patmore and as lady’s maid, she’s above the others, though she does participate in eavesdropping with Anna and Gwen precisely one time. Who is supposed to be O’Brien’s friend?
You could argue that she brought that upon herself with her abrasive personality. Except she’s nice to Mr. Lang. Maybe that’s loneliness, or maybe the other characters just didn’t give her a chance.
There’s also the fact that she did have a part to play. The show needed a villain and O’Brien and Barrow’s schemes played a large part in the show’s success. Problem is whereas Barrow is highly regarded by many fans, myself included, O’Brien is despised. Is that fair?
From everything we know about O’Brien, she’s a woman who’s fiercely loyal to those who show kindness to her. We see this in her interaction with Cora, Barrow, and Alfred. She’s someone who isn’t afraid to get her hands dirty to benefit the people she cares about, especially if it means that Bates find himself lying in the dirt.
With that in mind, we can sort of blame Hughes for their distant relationship. Hughes had a friend and didn’t need O’Brien. It doesn’t make sense that O’Brien would be intentionally hostile to her boss. It makes much more sense that she was lonely and jealous of her relationship with Patmore.
I wanted to start and end my evaluation of O’Brien with the soap because that really was her defining moment. From everything she’d heard, Cora was replacing her. Cora even talked about it directly to her. This was all one big misunderstanding and while I won’t excuse what she did with the soap, I do understand where she was coming from.
The aristocracy often sent servants packing and at that time, it wasn’t always easy to find other work. O’Brien felt she was faced with losing her livelihood and she lashed out because of it. Wrong, yes. Human, yes. Cora essentially controlled her entire existence and from her perspective, was flaunting it right in front of her. To write O’Brien off completely because of the soap feels wrong.
Her biggest flaw appears to be her lack of likability. She wasn’t very nice to Molesley when he feared for his own job during the “Matthew doesn’t need a valet for all of one episode” debacle. She lacks Barrow’s wit, which endears him to the audience. I wouldn’t say she’s more a villain than Barrow, but her shorter tenure on the show didn’t allow her to be as complex as he grew to be.
It’s hard to really say she wasn’t missed either. Even if she isn’t that well liked as a character, series four and five weren’t great. Could that be because there wasn’t one epic O’Brien/Barrow showdown to end their feud once and for all? I’m not sure we can rule that out.
These points may not make you like O’Brien and that’s okay. She isn’t a very likable character, though certainly more so than the insufferable Mr. Bates. To write her off simply because of her ladyship’s soap ignores her considerable contributions to the success of Downton.