There were plenty of reasons to tune into Downton Abbey when the epic period drama aired from 2010 to 2015. The costumes were absolutely stunning. The acting was top notch. The dramatic plots were at once soapy and regal. The characters were richly developed, often both wonderfully and frustratingly human. Romances were grand and sweeping, and betrayals were always right around the corner.
But let’s be honest here, everyone: the real star of Downton Abbey, its true crown jewel and the real reason for tuning in, was none other than Maggie Smith’s complete badass and queen of insults, Lady Violet Crawley, the Dowager Countess of Grantham. Whether you agreed with her total candor, or found yourself dreading her occasionally cruel remarks, the Dowager Countess stole each and every scene she was in. Here, we’ve recapped just a few of her absolute best quotes.
10“You’ll Find There’s Never A Dull Moment In This House.”
There’s no getting anything past Violet Crawley. Even if she may be removed from most of the drama that goes on within the hallowed halls of Downton Abbey, she is always the keenest observer of all that goes on under her family’s roof.
In the second episode of the series’ second season, when the Crawley family is at dinner, their beloved servant Mr. Carson suddenly suffers a health episode, leading the family to a state of panic. As she observes everything going on around her in the ensuing frenzy to ensure that Carson receives the medical care he deserves, the Dowager Countess remarks, “You’ll find there’s never a dull moment in this house.” How true that is.
9“What Do You Think Makes The English The Way We Are?” – “I Don’t Know. Opinions Differ. Some Say Our History. But I Blame The Weather.”
Over the course of the series, Violet Crawley has many partners in her snarking and sass. One of the most frequent verbal sparring partners she acquires is her daughter, the Lady Rosamund Painswick. Though the two got in their fair share of arguments, it was always clear that they loved one another dearly, and had the same sense of humor.
When Downton Abbey finally came to an end with a grand finale in 2015, expectations were high as to what the episode would include. Thankfully, the Dowager Countess’ signature brand of humor was prominently on display. When Rosamund asked Violet, “What do you think makes the English the way we are?”, her mother was ready with the perfect sassy reply: “I don’t know. Opinions differ. Some say our history. But I blame the weather.”
8“Principles Are Like Prayers: Noble, Of Course, But Awkward At A Party.”
Violet Crawley has opinions about everything that goes on with her family. But she also just plain has opinions about literally everything, and she’s never afraid to make those opinions known, no matter the scenario. In the fifth season’s premiere episode, after witnessing a discussion of politics and ranks, Violet once again lets out an all too witty remark.
Violet’s most frequent partner in observation and clear frenemy is Isobel, who disagrees with her in almost every way on almost every topic. When Isobel remarks that it’s wonderful to see “young people stand up for their principles,” Violet has a quick and witty counterpoint: “Principles are like prayers: noble, of course, but awkward at a party.”
7“Oh, You Know Me. Never Complain; Never Explain.”
Violet Crawley is known for her wit, her charm, and her clear propensity for complaining and judging just about everything she comes into contact with. She’s also not exactly the most self-aware person in the entirety of Downton Abbey, no matter how keen her observations on all of humanity might be.
In the fifth season finale, Violet and Edith engage in a bit of back and forth, which includes Violet making the laughably unaware and yet totally hilarious remark: “Oh, you know me. Never complain; never explain.” Edith points out that “You don’t usually have much trouble complaining” – and for once, even the Dowager Countess is silent.
6“I Will Never Again Receive An Immoral Proposition From A Man. Was I So Wrong To Savor It?”
Given her status as the resident Dowager Countess of Downton Abbey, it makes sense that the series never placed much emphasis on Violet’s love life. But all of that changed in the series’ fifth season with the introduction of Prince Igor Kuragin, a Russian refugee with whom Violet shared a sordid romantic history.
In the past, the two had once intended to flee from their marriages and elope together, but their plans were thwarted. Now, fifty years later, Igor returns to Violet following the Russian Revolution and asks her once again to be with him. Upon realizing that Igor is still married, and therefore tied down to the woman she still hates, Violet rejects him for good. But, as she points out herself, “I will never again receive an immoral proposition from a man. Was I so wrong to savor it?”
5“All This Endless Thinking. It’s Very Overrated. I Blame The War. Before 1914, Nobody Thought About Anything At All.”
Violet Crawley is a woman of both calculated decisions and spur of the moment actions, of careful planning and of speaking before her mind can catch up with her mouth. But if there’s one thing that Violet is tired of, it’s the increased focus on intellectualism and self-indulgent self-reflection within society.
After yet another blow up between sisters Mary and Edith, Violet has just about had it with the need to give people the time and space to think and deal with their feelings. She has no qualms about voicing her frustration, either: “All this endless thinking. It’s very overrated. I blame the war. Before 1914, nobody thought about anything at all.”
4“How You Hate To Be Wrong.” – “I Wouldn’t Know. I’m Not Familiar With The Sensation.”
We’ve already briefly discussed the back and forth rapport between the series’ strong older women, Lady Violet Crawley, and Isobel Crawley. When they first meet at the series’ beginning, they come from totally opposite worlds in terms of class and upbringing and worldview, and it’s clear that they don’t care for each other at all.
Over time, however, they grow to become dear friends and each other’s trusted support systems – but the witty back and forth never goes away. In the fourth season, when they were already well on their way to becoming true friends, Isobel observes, “How you hate to be wrong,” perfectly setting Violet up for this reply: “I wouldn’t know. I’m not familiar with the sensation.”
3“What Is A Weekend?”
Given her status as a true member of the aristocratic classes, it’s always hilarious to find the Dowager Countess confronted with the realities of how the lower classes live. She’s rendered utterly confused and even, impressively, embarrassed on a few occasions.
All the way back in the series’ second episode, Violet provides a truly memorable moment when she interacts with the lower class heir, Matthew Crawley. During a discussion of running the Crawley estate, Matthew remarks that, “Oh, don’t worry, there are plenty of hours in the day. And of course, I’ll have the weekend.” And Violet, in utter horror and blinking confusion, breathlessly inquires, “What is a weekend?”
2“I Have Plenty Of Friends I Don’t Like.”
In many ways, Violet Crawley is a walking contradiction – an enigma, even – and that’s exactly the way she likes things to be. No one can ever truly know what’s going on in her mind, and it’s often hard to get a read on her feelings for someone until she makes it incredibly and verbally clear.
She’s also always open about her willingness to be contradictory and confusing, to the consternation and amusement of other characters and dedicated viewers and fans alike. During a discussion of Matthew Crawley’s character, Robert inquires of his mother, “I thought you didn’t like him?” He’s not wrong about that, either. But Violet has an entirely different approach to thinking of things: “So what? I have plenty of friends I don’t like.”
1“I’m A Woman, Mary. I Can Be As Contrary As I Choose.”
As we’ve already discussed, Violet Crawley, the Dowager Countess of Grantham, has absolutely no problem being open about her feelings, her beliefs, and her ability to be as judgmental and opinionated as she so pleases. She has the privilege of being from an aristocratic class, but she still has the weights to bear of being elderly and female in a time when neither of those voices were valued.
But Violet turns around and uses those personality traits to her own advantage. As the matriarch of the Crawley family, Violet makes sure everyone knows who’s in charge, and just why she’s the one whose opinion needs to be valued, no matter how difficult they may be. As she tells her granddaughter, Mary, “I’m a woman, Mary. I can be as contrary as I choose.”