|Laura Carmichael as Lady Edith Photo: Nick Briggs|
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.
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.
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
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.