Marriage and Divorce at Downton Abbey

One thing you should know about real men: they are not afraid to admit they like Downton Abbey.

If you’ve somehow never heard of it, Downton Abbey is basically a social and political study of early 20th-century British culture in the guise of a period drama about rich people, starring the incredibly funny and cool Dame Maggie Smith as well as a lot of other people who are less important than her.

Not surprisingly, I’m most entertained by the storylines that involve marriage and divorce—I love learning about how much things have changed since the 1920s, and sometimes, how much they haven’t.

While people like Henry VIII were divorcing as they pleased, divorce didn’t become legal for regular British folk until the mid-1800s, so in 1920 it was still pretty new. It also wasn’t particularly acceptable. (Think your divorce made social situations awkward? Try being a divorcee in 1924.)

Here are some of my favorite storylines from the show.

Only marriage can save Downton Abbey.

One of the early plot lines centers around how, because women can’t inherit property and the Earl of Downton only has daughters, the property is going to go to some random distant cousin who (gasp) isn’t even aristocracy.

The implication of that legality is that, if the family hope to keep their property, one of the three daughters must be married off to this random redneck cousin. Cue awkward English eye rolls.

No no-fault divorce.

The most interesting couple in the show is no doubt the housemaid Anna and the valet Bates, although they have the hardest time getting together of anyone, ever.

This is partly because Bates’s previous wife—a truly horrendous woman—decides to be a pain by not agreeing to a divorce, citing that she and Bates have a happy marriage, even though they’ve not lived together for years.

To this day there is still no “no-fault divorce” in the UK, meaning someone has to do something egregious for divorce to be legally allowed. You can’t just say, “Well, we don’t like each other anymore.”

No child support laws.

When the slightly “fast” housemaid Ethel is discovered having an affair with a visiting military officer, she’s in a bad situation as she ends up both fired—and pregnant.

The officer refuses to accept the child is his, and since there were no legal grounds in the 1920s in England to force unwed fathers to take financial responsibility, Ethel has to raise the child alone, and ultimately has to become a prostitute to make ends meet.

These days, and particularly since the advent of paternity testing, this is less likely to happen—although not entirely unheard of.  It was probably pretty common back then and definitely made for a harrowing, thought-provoking plot point. (Oh, and then the officer was killed in battle in WW1—that’s karma for you.)

You can’t divorce the insane.

Edith, the less-attractive sister who everyone thinks is bound to end up an old maid, surprises everyone in the third season by starting a relationship with Michael Gregson, the editor of a magazine she writes for. However, in typical style, Edith has bad luck in that Gregson can’t marry her—because he already has a wife, who is clinically insane.

Until the 1950s, many national laws prevented spouses from divorcing the insane because the spouse could not legally consent to divorce. These days, however, someone being insane can in fact be considered grounds for divorce—shows how times have changed.

Divorce makes you a pariah.

One of the great dramatic moments of the fifth season was the marriage of Lady Rose MacClare to Atticus Aldridge being almost derailed by her mother dropping the bomb on the wedding party that she and her husband—ie. Rose’s parents—were in the middle of a divorce. At the time, and perhaps especially for those in British High Society, divorce was not, shall we say, “the done thing.”

Unfortunately for the devious Lady MacClare, the majority of the wedding party are entirely unimpressed by this news, and the wedding goes ahead as if she never said a word. Doh.

Since then, the frequency with which couples get divorced has risen to the point that it’s now a normal part of social life, if a sometimes painful one.


Think I’ve spoiled the show by giving away all the best parts? You couldn’t be more wrong. I have but scratched the surface, as Lady Mary Crawley would say.

Downton Abbey airs on PBS (like all the best things) where the sixth season premiers tonight (January 3rd) at 9pm EST. See you there!

James J. Sexton