The Downton Abbey Adoption Plotline

Spoiler Alert! If you’re an avid Downton fan and you’re behind on the show, stop reading now.

As I watched the Downton Abbey season finale on Sunday, I was intrigued by Lady Edith’s adoption plotline. The story is remarkably sympathetic and it illuminates several important points in the history of adoption. Mini recap: Edith became pregnant by a man who was courting her just before he moved to Germany in an attempt to divorce his mentally ill wife. She considered terminating the pregnancy (a crime at the time), and ultimately was convinced by her Aunt Rosamund to hide the pregnancy, go to Switzerland, and place the child for adoption. In the last episode Edith has returned from Geneva, regretting the decision. She tries to make other arrangements to have the child raised by a local villager.

The show gets low marks for recycling the dramatic “birth mother changes her mind and wants the baby back” plot, but it treats Edith sympathetically as she struggles to find a solution that will allow her to maintain her position in society and be able to have some contact with the child. The story also illustrates some of the ways adoption has changed in the last century.

  • Adoptive families used to be in the same community as the birth families. It was common for children born out of wedlock to be placed with childless couples who were either related to the mother or lived in the same town. These adoptions were in some senses “open” in that the child and the birth mother would see each other from time to time and the birth mother could see that the child was thriving with the adopted parents. Lady Edith wanted to place her child with a local family with much the same hope. After World War II, social services agencies became involved, matching children to adoptive parents and the birth mother would never get any information about the child.
  • Shame and secrecy. Having a child born out of wedlock stigmatized both the woman and the child. Edith fretted over whether anyone would receive her, much less her “bastard” child. Instead her aunt and grandmother conspired to have her go to Switzerland rather than face ostracism in England. Edith didn’t even tell her mother or sister about the child.

There are some probably unrealistic elements – Lady Edith and her aunt seemed to know the names of the Swiss adoptive parents, which strikes me as unlikely. And it’s doubtful that Edith would be able to unwind the adoption.

While this isn’t the best adoption story on TV, I do like how Edith’s complex and conflicting emotions are portrayed. She cares about the child and wants what is best for her, but she’s confined by society and her place in it. She’s reluctant to parent a girl who will be disadvantaged by the circumstances of her birth, but is unwilling to turn her back on her daughter and send her away.