' [Birth Mother] First Mother Forum: Downton Abbey: Once again dealing with the scandal of a 'bastard'

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Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Downton Abbey: Once again dealing with the scandal of a 'bastard'

Laura Carmichael as Lady Edith Crawley in Downton Abbey
Laura Carmichael as Lady Edith                 Photo: Nick Briggs
Today we go from reality TV (trash or not, that's for you to decide) to midbrow Downton Abbey. The story line is going further and further into the Lady-Edith-had-a-bastard-baby thread, and they are doing a bangup job with it.

For those who don't follow this highfalutin' soap opera from BBC, a primer: The not-beautiful middle daughter ends up with somewhat of a job--writing columns for a newspaper--instead of a husband. But an affair follows with the editor of the paper, who is unfortunately married to a mad woman locked up
somewhere. (Shades of Jane Eyre here.) Of course, this being then (after World War One) and not
now, Edith's suitor and perfectly nice chap can't get a divorce and marry her. Things are certain to go bad.

Lorraine
When he hears that he might be able to get a divorce in Germany, off he goes. But there he mysteriously disappears almost immediately, last seen in the company of a group of hooligans...and Lady Edith is pregnant. Telling no one at Downton Abbey--the scandal would surely kill her father, Lord Grantham, and the whole family would be mired in public humiliation. Eventually, the Dowager Countess who is Edith's Granny (played by the irrepressible Maggie Smith) figures out the secret, but it is barely spoken of, and she surely will tell no one, and the baby must be left in Switzerland, where Edith will go for several months to study French.

A 'SECRET' OPEN ADOPTION
A girl is born. Lady Edith, played beautifully by Laura Carmichael, manages to bring her child to England and quietly arranges for a tenant farm family to take her in. That's where we are now and what has been true to life to this mother who had a child "out of wedlock" (to use a phrase that was common in the Sixties), is that the attitudes portrayed are in sync with what they would have been then, and quite honestly, were not that much different in the Fifties and Sixties.

To have a baby and not a husband was high scandal and hugely embarrassing. Yes, even then, the scandal and gossip would have engulfed the entire family. It probably wouldn't have spoiled the chances of an older sister making a good match--but it might have. Knowing what I know about mothers in the Polish community I had some ties to, it certainly would have been a factor if a favored son wanted to marry a daughter from a family that had that hovering over it. And it would have been a ton worse if the baby were kept, and mother and child still in the home. Even in the mid-Sixties, I can see how a sister with a bastard baby would have stigmatized the whole family, father, mother, siblings.

If it is hard to believe this, consider this: My mother believed that the mother of the young man I once intended to marry was against out relationship because my mother herself had been divorced, and she had remarried outside the Catholic Church. I will never know if that is true, but if my mother believed my boyfriend's mother was against us because of a divorce in the family--think what a bastard baby would have done--if I'd had a sister, which I didn't.

ORPHANS A STAPLE OF LITERATURE
Downton Abbey is merely one in a long line of literature that is populated by orphans, or bastards without fathers or mothers to claim them, and women who broke with convention and had sex outside of marriage: The stories begin with Moses and include several books by Dickens, Bleak House is the one that has the unfortunate birth mother, Lady Dedlock (rhymes with wedlock), who must keep the secret or be ruined--not unlike how mothers who have never told their current families of the child from the past seem to feel. Think of Tom Jones, Tess of the d'Uubervilles, Silas Marner, The Scarlet Letter. Jane Austen's Mansfield Park has the "good adopted daughter" syndrome in the character of Fanny Price, who is supposed to be grateful for small favors. One could go on and on here, but back to Downton Abbey.

At first Lady Edith claims that the baby is a true orphan, the daughter of unfortunate "friends." However she can't stay away and keeps checking in on the baby; the farmer quickly discerns that Lady Edith is the true mother, and encourages her to take on the child as a patron or god mother. However, his wife is not in on the secret, and sees the child as merely one of her brood, and why is this woman so interested in this child? Edith has told her parents that she wishes to take an active interest in the child--she is technically an orphan, right?--and perhaps even bring her up to the house...where she could interact with her cousins--Lady Mary's baby and that of the younger sister, Sibyl, who had died of an illness. Lord Grantham frets that Edith will tire of the child and disappoint her; Lady Edith demurs. The farmer's wife is suspicious of the interloper Edith hanging around the baby she now thinks of as her own. Et cetera. Is the baby's true parentage going to come out? Already a picture of a baby has been found in Edith's bed.

Adoptive parents are blogging that they are worried about the farm family raising the child [stand in for: adoptive parents], and wish Lady Edith, the girl's first mother [stand in for: birth mothers], would bow out. We want both baby and mother to spend time together. As much as possible. And the truth to come out. As people are posting on Facebook: Je Suis Edith. I am Edith. We are, you see, we know the awful and continuing pain of watching someone else raise your flesh-and-blood. It hurts. Every damn day. And don't tell us, well, Edith made her bed, now let her lie in it. Giving up a child is not a one-time act, it stays with you forever. Edith faced family shame or eternal pain. So far, she's with the pain, and trying to spend time with her daughter. But from the looks of it, something is about to change next week. Granny already knows the truth; Mary will be furious and nasty; Lord Grantham will be...astonished, angry and maybe...come around.

WOEFUL LIFE OF A POOR BIRTH MOTHER
This is the second time that Downton Abbey has a story line with an inauspicious pregnancy. Earlier,
a maid was impregnated by a cad of a serviceman recuperating at the house after the Great War. No Switzerland for her. Ethel the maid ended up in poverty--having to leave service to the Ganthams so they can avoid the scandal--and is found in London , first as a prostitute, and later, taking in laundry for pennies. Ethel's life will be unbearably hard, as will her son's. She will probably die young, of poverty and neglect; her son will end up a true orphan. You can see it all before you.

The paternal grandparents were told of their grandson; their son had ultimately died; the baby was their only chance at having a grandchild. They offer to take him in and give him a good life, the best schools--but Edith must never let him know who she is, his mother. He won't be told the truth until he is much older--when he was likely to reject his lowly mother, I remember thinking. Along with--Oh damn, she is going to do it, that's how this would be written...and at the last moment, Ethel finds the backbone to grab her son and go. She tells the housekeeper, Mrs. Hughes, that her son will have what he could not get from the wealthy grandparents: "a mother's love." Hooray.

New Add on 1/16/15:
Hooray only for the time being: Fast Forward a couple of episodes later, as I recall, Ethel is having such a hard time making a living and supporting herself and her son, Charley, as an unwed mother that she capitulates and gives him to the truly awful and condescending grandfather and his submissive wife, who is at least a more sympathetic character. Ethel will be a servant in the household, but the son will not be told until much later that she is his real mother. By then, I knew, he would look down upon her and be horrified that that lowly woman was the stock from whence he came. I remember crying--sobbing--at the time, and I couldn't bring myself to write about it the next day. So when I looked up the previous blogs I wrote about Ethel, it ends with: and she kept her baby. Well, not so IRL and not so in Downton Abbey. You really felt that Ethel's choice was no choice at all. Her son would go to good schools and be educated, or would live a life of poverty and drudgery. It was really hard for me to watch, just as Maryanne says about herself in her comment below.

My feeling about how Charley would later relate to his mother came from personal experience: I knew the adopted son of a wealthy, prominent man, whose father divorced his mother when he was quite young and married a much-in-the-news socialite. His dad sent him wristwatches and the like from Tiffany's for his birthday, almost certainly picked out by his father's secretary. He was an embittered and nasty individual. He was in my life briefly but long enough to attempt to cause a disruption between me and a girlfriend. Some years later I heard through another person that he had found his mother, and...she had been an laundress, and he did not take the news kindly. Life imitates art, in this case. All of this was so vividly on my mind when this plot line ran that I attempted to scrub out of my mind what actually happened on Downton Abbey.

Downton Abbey is a favorite show of mine--no matter than my husband insists on calling it a soap opera, it's a damn good soap opera--and kudos to scriptwriter Julian Fellowes for getting the feelings and story in a way that at least this first mother can appreciate and not feel bad about. Despite the strictures of high society between the wars, Fellowes is trumpeting the eternal theme of: a mother's love.--lorraine


FROM FMF
Downton Abbey's Lady Edith brings her 'bastard' home. Almost.
Downton Abbey and what you won't learn from those happy adoption agency websites

For a scholarly look at how adoption has been dealt with in literature, read adoptee Marianne Novy's excellent analysis: Reading Adoption: Family and Difference in Fiction and Drama 


THANK YOU FOR ORDERING ANYTHING THROUGH FMF. CLICK ON THE BOOK PICTURES TO GO TO AMAZON. Mansfield Park has been made into a charming movie. 'Tess' is also a film, directed by Roman Polanski.

17 comments :

  1. Lorraine, sadly, the story of Ethel the maid and her son didn't end there. She later did give up her son to his grandparents. I lay on my couch and sobbed during that episode. :(

    ReplyDelete
  2. The servant who had a baby boy was Ethel. I'm addicted to this series as well.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. You are right, the maid with the baby was Ethel. Thanks. I've fixed it in the post. I got used to typing...Edith.

      Delete
    2. Edith, Ethel, Edna...Julian Fellows needs to find a new favorite letter.

      Also, Ethel wasn't taking in laundry, she was a hooker. Or, a Prostitute

      Delete
    3. And commenter h2o_girl is correct, Ethel did give her son to his father's parents. And later supposedly joined their household as a servant, with the agreement that her son (now having forgotten her) will not be told she is his mother.

      Delete
    4. As I recall, Ethel was found in London by Mrs. Hughes working as a prostitute and later when in touch with the family again she taking in laundry. The fate of poor women who strayed. In her case, she was seduced by a randy upper class serviceman. It still happens.

      Delete
  3. It is perfectly ok to like soap operas, because they do not hurt any real people like reality TV. I prefer cop shows myself, and yes, the adoption thing does come up, usually in a gruesome way. I also read murder mysteries, and just finished a Martha Grimes one where adoption figured in the plot in a very convoluted way. My favorite adoptee heroine in murder mystery books is Marcia Muller's Sharon McCone, a late discovery Native American adoptee. Her reunion and post reunion ongoing relationship with both birthparents and extended family and adoptive family is portrayed realistically and kindly. It is her life, not just a plot device for one story.

    As to Downton Abbey, don't watch it because my Irish grandparents were servants on a huge estate like that in that time period. Morristown NJ where they lived was called "Millionaire's Row." From my Dad I know too much about that lifestyle and what it was like for the serfs
    (oh, I mean servants). If you worked for decent rich people, it was not too awful but if they were mean, it was hell. In any case, it was the only job in town for unskilled immigrants.

    ReplyDelete
  4. I had to run out last night--I review theater for a local newspaper--but onvernight I remembered what happened with Ethel--she did give up the baby, and as I now recall, was going to work in the household but not reveal who she was...until much much later. Like Maryanne, I was so upset with the show that although I had been writing about ETHEL before, I was so upset with what happened--even though it had the feel of veracity--that I couldn't bring myself to write about it. I too wept like crazy, thinking please please don't do that, even though I know it's only a TV show. I'll be changing the post all...later this morning. Thanks for the corrections! No making mistakes with a live audience!

    PS: I like shows about spies--Homeland, The Americans--as well as some cop shows. I'm only watching Breaking Bad now and it is the work of genius, even if there are a lot of killings. It is Shakespearan in scope. And I do like Blue Bloods and SVU, and yes, adoption comes up all the time...

    ReplyDelete
  5. New Add on 1/16/15:
    Hooray only for the time being: Fast Forward a couple of episodes later, as I recall, Ethel is having such a hard time making a living and supporting herself and her son as an unwed mother that she capitulates and gives the son to the truly awful and condescending grandfather and his submissive wife, who is at least a more sympathetic character. Ethel will be a servant in the household, but the son will not be told until much later that she is his real mother. By then, he will look down upon her and be horrified that that lowly woman is the stock from which he comes. I remember crying--sobbing--at the time, and I couldn't bring myself to write about it the next day. So when I looked up the previous blogs I wrote about Ethel, it ends with: and she kept her baby. Well, not so IRL and not so in Downton Abbey. You really felt that Ethel's choice was no choice at all. Her son would go to good schools and be educated, or would live a life of poverty and drudgery. It was really hard for me to watch, just as Maryanne says in her comment below.

    My feeling about how Charley the would later relate to his mother came from personal experience: I knew the adopted son of a very wealthy, prominent man, whose father divorced his mother when he was quite young and married a much-in-the-news socialite. His dad sent him wristwatches and other stuff from Tiffany's for his birthday, which the man I knew felt was picked out by his father's secretary. The man I knew was embittered and nasty, and he was in my life briefly but long enough to attempt to cause a disruption between me and a girlfriend. Some years later I heard through another person that he had found his mother, and...she had been a laundress, and he did not take the news kindly. Life imitates art, in this case. All of this was so vividly on my mind when this plot line ran that I attempted to scrub out of my mind what actually happened on Downton Abbey.

    ReplyDelete
  6. I watch Downton, too! I find it interesting that the adoptive mother (even though she has 3 older bio children) is becoming more possessive of this young girl in her care. One would think that--as the mother of an orphan--she would be happy that the girl had captured Edith's attention? Apparently not, there appears to be trouble ahead.

    Adoption is everywhere in popular culture, I just finished "Top of the Lake." The 7 part series came out last year, and is now on Netflix. Written & directed by Jane Campion, (of "The Piano" fame, where the mother of an out of wedlock girl is sold into an arranged marriage in 1850) the series is set in present day NZ. Elisabeth Moss stars as a police officer who comes back to her hometown where she was raped as a teen, and was moved away from to give birth to--and give up--the child. The series has been renewed for another season, so I'm guessing that "the daughter" who has "written letters" will be a major storyline. I am cautiously hopeful that Campion will handle it with care.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I too saw the Top of the Lake (when it was on TV initially) and yes...the heroine turns out to have been raped on prom night, gotten pregnant and given up the child. It came out slowly and thoughtfully. But I admit...there I times I wish I could watch something I like without it nearly always having a triggering moment when I say: Uh Oh. In this case, I did see it coming.

      It--giving up a baby, adoption--seems to be everywhere. In the production I am reviewing for the local paper (Mom, It's My Wedding), even at the end of Paddington Bear...

      Yes, I find it interesting that the woman standing in for "adoptive" mother in DA is already suspicious and you jut know there is trouble brewing between her and Edith, the real mother.

      Delete
  7. For an adoptive father who has a completely different take on the Edith story...read:

    http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2015/01/18/downton-abbey-s-alarming-adoption-plot.html

    he's all upset with how the adoptive mother is being treated, and thinks Lady Edith ought to have left the baby in Switzerland.

    ReplyDelete
  8. I understand her being upset - she doesn't know that Edith is the mother and it seems this rich bored girl is trying to take the child she's taken in as her own. I love Edith but I get it.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Leslie: We all "get it" but as the mothers who gave birth, we empathize with the "rich bored girl" --that's harsh--who is the real mother of the child in question. It would be better if both father and mother who are raising her knew the truth. The mother then might be able to have more understanding of what is going on. But from the previews, it looks like the story is going to come to a head and everyone come to realize she gave birth to the girl and she has Grantham stock.

      Delete
  9. Because Downton Abbey and our story line is irritating some people--and adoptive-parent bloggers--I made another add to the post regarding Edith and Ethel. As people are posting on Facebook:Je Suis Edith. I am Edith.

    Add your name.

    ReplyDelete
  10. Edith is my favorite. Truly. I didn't mean that is what she was - that is how the adoptive mother sees her because no one told her the truth. I can't stand Mary. Edith has always been the smart one. I wish she would take her baby and go back to London and work on that newspaper that the (dead?) boyfriend left her.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I think most modern women love Edith, now that the rebellious Sibyl is gone.

      Je suis Edith!

      Delete

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