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


Think They're Still Together? TV Sitcoms Edition

Did you watch so much TV as a kid that sometimes you can’t remember which are your own memories and which belong to Greg Brady? No? Just me? Fair enough. After decades of inviting TV families into my living room, I’m really invested in their everlasting happiness. Sure they’re fictional, but their stories don’t have to end after a series finale. Not when you play my favorite game: hey, think they’re still together?

After facilitating the demise of unhappy marriages for over a decade, we at the firm have developed an eye for spotting which couples are solid and which are likely to end up in our office. Call it a blessing or call it a curse, just please don’t call to invite us to your next party only to make predictions about your neighbors. This game can get ugly when played in real life so let’s just stick to the tube, shall we?

The Nanny – Fran and Max

Still together? NO

When last we saw the Sheffields, they were moving to California with their newborn twins and Grace. Were they destined for that Bower-Micelli brand of marital bliss? They sure started out in a similar setup, but no. Things were fine in California for a while, but then Max’s sitcom got canceled. The economy tanked and Max struggled to make a mark on the LA theatre scene. Deep down, Fran still held a grudge over that first time Max said he loved her then took it back and would bring it up during fights over money. Then tragedy struck — Loehmann’s closed. Fran fell into a catatonic state, the house got foreclosed on and Max split back to England leaving Grace to care for Fran and the twins. Every so often you can catch Grace wheeling Fran around a Nordstrom Rack in the Valley and if you listen carefully you can here Fran muttering “It’s not the same…” over and over.

Who’s the Boss – Tony and Angela

Still together? YES

We never got to see Angela and Tony get married, but I think we can all agree they did. Angela was a modern woman, leaning in from day one, and perhaps would have been happier with a long lasting partnership never officially recognized by the government. But Tony was a different story. His strong Italian Catholic roots likely had him insisting on marriage. Angela probably made some wry quip about how they’d been living in sin for eight years so what’s the difference? Tony probably called her Ang and explained how much it meant to him. Angela probably said oh, alright and they hugged while music swelled and the scene faded to black. I’m sure the wedding was at the house. Jonathan was best man. Sam was maid of honor. Mona officiated. It was beautiful! Oh yeah, I guess Billy was there too. But did they last? Yes. Their love developed over time. They started as friends first. They figured out how to live together and how to raise their kids together before romance ever entered the picture. They worked hard at balancing out a power struggle in a unique situation (A man! As a housekeeper! A man!!). So yes, the Bower-Micellis are most likely happily retired in Connecticut right now.

The Cosby Show – Sondra and Elvin

Still together? YES

We’ll just leave the Bill Cosby controversy over there on the other side of the room while we talk about the only Cosby Show relationship that really mattered: Sondra and Elvin. Mismatched from the start, right? How did they even get together? Sondra was driven, responsible and no nonsense. Then Elvin came into her life. You remember Elvin? The misogynist who talked Sondra into dropping out of law school to open a wilderness store because their camping honeymoon was so fun? Yeah, why not throw away everything you worked for on a whim? A wilderness whim! Later on they had twins and got their heads back on straight and both went back to school. But did they last? Yes. Why? Because they had busy careers, outsourced their childcare and never saw each other. It was easier to stay married than get divorced and they got to live their lives happily and separately.

Mad About You – Paul and Jamie

Still together? NO

In the finale set years in the future, the Buchmans were separated. Love’s rekindled at daughter Mabel’s film screening and we’re told they lived happily ever after. But did they? Paul left Jamie for being “unkind.” I don’t think you can ever truly come back from that, spark or no spark. That’s a shot right to the gut not a lot of people could move past. I’m sure they tried to make it work for a while but ultimately there too much pain and resentment there.

Family Matters – Harriette and Carl

Still together? NO

The odds were really stacked against the Winslows. Both had stressful careers, Carl an overworked Chicago police officer and Harriette, once an elevator operator, then head of security, then head of sales. They had a full house — three kids, a widowed sister, a nephew, a mother and later on an orphan named 3J. How could any marriage survive with that many people around? Then there was Urkel who was always barging in, practically destroying the house with his bungled inventions, and endlessly annoying everyone he, or his alter ego came in contact with. Urkel’s constant presence in the Winslow home could not have been healthy for the marriage. Taxing jobs, an overflowing house, and the world’s worst neighbor: a recipe for marriage disaster.

Boy Meets World – Cory and Topanga

Still together? YES

Do we even need to talk about this? Yes, they stayed together. Duh. Next!


Family Ties – Elyse and Steven

Still together? YES

What a kooky liberal pair. They made it through the Reagan eighties intact so they’d be able to make it through anything. And with Alex off on Wall Street, Mallory married off to Nick, Jennifer well on her way to Oberlin and Andy fading away into thin air as he was a figment of everyone’s imagination (a real child cannot age five years in the span of one season, clearly he was an apparition all along), Elyse and Steven had the time and space to recommit to each other. Boy did their love flourish in those Clinton years.

Saved By The Bell – Kelly and Zack

Still together? NO

What a fairytale! High school sweethearts turned college newlyweds! What could go wrong? Everything! Zack kept scheming his way through life, and while the entrepreneur lifestyle was fun for a while it ended in trademark infringement and a brush with securities fraud. While Zack avoided jail time, he did lose the house and both cars. Then to top it off, drunk one night, Zack confessed he had the ability to freeze time, a secret he’d been keeping for his whole life. Kelly was furious. They were supposed to be partners! They were supposed to tell each other everything! She packed up the kids and headed to the Midwest hoping to find a good wholesome man with a stable job, a strong work ethic, no magical powers and a reasonably sized cell phone.

The Office – Dawn and Tim

Still together? YES

Arguing which version of The Office is better is a debate for another day, but it’s pretty clear Dawn and Tim lived happily ever after. Another slow building relationship, Dawn and Tim were friends first. They bonded over miserable jobs and everyone knows misery brings people together more effectively than anything good can. Maybe they settled in Slough or maybe they made their way to a better city to live out their dreams. Who knows, but I’m sure wherever they went, they went together.


James J. Sexton