Having A Child Out Of Wedlock
In the fifth season, the middle and often ignored daughter Edith gets pregnant by a newspaper mogul named Michael Gregson. Unlike her sister Mary, Edith lacked the foresight to procure birth control. To make matters worse, Gregson then disappears, leaving pregnant Edith completely alone. She contemplates having an abortion – but ultimately decides to have the baby and give it up for adoption, rather than soil her family’s glittery reputation.
This being the early 1920s, Edith’s decision not to have an abortion may well have been as much out of fear for her safety as it was a fear of social reprisal. At this time, most surgeries were still being performed rudimentarily, without modern antibiotics or life-saving technologies like blood transfusions (which were still in their infancy after WWI, when they had been performed on the battlefield).
As opposed to these surgeries, Edith would more likely have had a forced miscarriage by way of an abortifacient. Of course, this carried its own health risks and since Edith’s younger sister, Sybil, died from complications during childbirth a few years earlier (more on that later) it would not likely have been a risk she’d be willing to take.
It would not be unheard of for someone of Edith’s social standing to pay someone off to take in a “foundling,” and numerous examples of this are peppered throughout classic literature. Still, Edith’s connection to her daughter and desire to raise her ultimately leads her to bring the child back to Downton and admit to her parents that the girl is, in fact, hers.
But for most women in Edith’s position in interwar Europe, the financial and social difficulties of being an unwed mother would have prevented them from having the same happy ending that Edith did. For many women raising children alone, it had been the war that had taken away their spouses. The phenomenon of single mothers in the interim between the first and second World Wars in Europe was not a minor one, though it would have been even less acceptable for a woman of Edith’s social standing, hence why it was so shrouded in secrecy.