Sex in the Age of Downton

Alexandra White | January 28, 2015

Potential scandal is under way at Downton Abbey! Last week saw Mary’s thoroughly modern (and according to some, wildly inappropriate) tryst with Lord Gillingham, as well as a budding flirtation between Lady Grantham and art critic Mr. Bricker.

Both men and women alike were sometimes tempted with affairs (and some have already had one, *cough cough* Lord Grantham). But for a woman to have an affair during this period, it was far more dangerous. Historically, women were the ones to be punished for engaging in sex outside of marriage, while men were pardoned. In fact, well-bred men often had mistresses or went to prostitutes to keep their wives “pure,” which was common and widely accepted.

Before the sexual revolution and before the suffrage movement, women’s rights concerning their body and family planning were next to none. A woman belonged to her husband and had no legal right to her own property or children. Widely believed to be frail physically and emotionally, women of all classes were denied education. Women of higher class were not allowed to seek out professional opportunities, while women of a lower class were thought of as “robust” and therefore able to handle fieldwork, factory work, and household servitude. Women were expected to tend to the house and children, please their husband, and engage in social functions. Before the 1882 Married Women’s Property Act, upon marriage, all of a woman’s inheritance and property would immediately belong to the husband.

By the 20th century, most laws punishing adulterers in criminal court had been abolished, and instead the label of “adulterer” was used only in divorce proceedings.

A Risky Business

Other than the shame and moral issues that came with sex outside of marriage (for single women and for those engaging in adultery), there was also the risk of unplanned pregnancy. Women in the middle and upper classes were often at least partially aware of contraception, and could access condoms and diaphragms at a relatively inexpensive cost. For women of lower classes, this was often not an option.

In 1921, Marie Stopes opened a clinic for married women who were seeking knowledge about their reproductive health. There women could find a relatively diverse set of contraceptive options which were not publicly available and most importantly, it was free. Women of all social classes could now have access to family planning, under the guise that it was indeed for sex with their spouse and not another man. Purchase of these tools could easily be denied by store clerks if they suspected it was for other use.

Shame – The Biggest Consequence

Shame was arguably the most powerful tool in the 1920s when it came to discouraging sex and adultery. There was no legal penalty for extra-marital sex, though it was one of very few grounds for divorce. Women caught in affairs would have been shunned by their community and been seen as social outcasts. The only solution to this shame would be to move far enough away to escape the social circles in which they were known. Gossip brought down many women and even their children, as the mistakes of the mother was often thought to bring a cycle of indecency within the family.

Meanwhile, for a man to have an affair was “natural.” He may have brought personal shame to his wife, but the larger community wouldn’t go beyond gossiping behind closed doors. His adulterous behavior could lead to a divorce, but it was unlikely that the stigma would stick around for too long afterwards.

Downton Consequences

It’s clear from the lengths Lady Mary has gone to in order to cover up her romance, that she is well aware of the potential consequences of her actions. And despite the fact that Cora has not technically engaged in an affair, even just the perception of infidelity has sent Lord Grantham into a spiral. Meanwhile, his past infidelities with former maid Jane Moorsum are almost all but forgotten. We can see this season that change is indeed coming to Downton, but this subject especially shows us how far there is still to go for the Ladies of the manor.

Masterpiece: Downton Abbey airs Sunday nights at 9 p.m. on THIRTEEN.