Marriage, Sex and Love in Traditional and Conservative Edwardian England. Lady Mary is Embracing the Modern World

Exemplified in Julian Fellowes’ 'Downton Abbey'

Term Paper, 2015

21 Pages, Grade: 1,7


Table of Contents

I. Introduction

II. Edwardian Women: Social and Historical Background of the Second Sex in Edwardian England
2.1 Marriage, Sex and Love in Edwardian England
2.2 The Concept of the New Woman

III. Lady Mary as a Woman of Tradition and Modernity
3.1 The Fulfilment of Obligation and Duty: The Engagement to her Cousin Patrick
3.2 The Spirit of a Modern Woman: The Short Affair with Kemal Pamuk
3.3 The Protection of the Estate: The Expedient Engagement to Richard Carlisle
3.4 The Concordance of Obligation and Love: Matthew the Soulmate of Mary
3.5 Relationship on Trial: The Rendezvous with Anthony Foyle
3.6 Lady Mary is Embracing the Modern Woman: The Marriage with Henry Talbot

IV. Conclusion


Primary Sources

Secondary Sources

I. Introduction

The Edwardian Era, a time of prosperity, glory and peace – a period in which England was the biggest imperial power – portrayed a golden age for the British society. However, this time was not only a time of wealth and leadership but also a time of social changes and movements, especially for women. The changing roles of women gathered much more attention than ever before and triggered an unprecedented women revolution.

“This social revolution had many implications besides the sexual: it also involved legal, political, and economic issues, and touched on property ownership, the franchise, higher education, the birth rate, laws of marriage and divorce, the protocol of the court, and the future of the Empire – in short, on nearly every aspect of Edwardian society. In all these aspects, the question asked was, what should be the role of women here? (Or by Tories, what is the trouble with women now?)” (Hynes 1968: 172).

This is one of the issues depicted in in Julian Fellows’ period drama Downton Abbey. In his period drama Fellows depicts the life of the fictive aristocratic Crawley family living at Downton Abbey and their staff from the beginning of 1902 until 1925. The series takes place at the fictive country estate Downton in Yorkshire, England which belongs to the Earl of Grantham and his wife Lady Grantham. Together they have three children – Lady Mary, Lady Edith and Lady Sybil who portray three very distinct female types within the Edwardian society. Through his series Fellows depicts an authentic image of England during the post-Edwardian period. In particular he creates a microcosm of English society and addresses several Edwardian issues of that time – e.g. the decline and the fall of the aristocracy, the women revolution, the decay of the Victorian morals and values.

Since the series addresses quite a number of issues this paper, however, will as indicated above focus on the women question depicted in Downton Abbey. The present paper therefore briefly outlines the main characteristics of Edwardian women, which are relevant for the present study and subsequently set these findings in a relation with Downton Abbey. Particularly, it will delve into the social and historical background of upper class Edwardian women and compares and contrasts it with the character depiction of Lady Mary. Since not all characteristics can be analysed in detail the focus of this paper will be laid on the questions of marriage, sex and love. The main aim of the paper is thus to point out that Lady Mary finds herself in a most inner conflict between her sense of duty and obligation and striving for autonomy and modernity. In particular, this paper will illustrate that Lady Mary displays an authentic image of an Edwardian woman but if it comes to marriage, sex and love she is even ahead of her time. Through the series she more and more overcomes her inner conflict and develops to a self-determined, modern women who acts out of conviction not out of a feeling of obligation or duty. This development is clearly to be recognized through the love attachments of Lady Mary. Accordingly, the present paper will pass through the main relationships of Lady Mary and will analyse how they impact her feminist progression. The selection was thereby reduced to six relationships since this is a limited term paper which nonetheless should provide a thorough analysis and interpretation. Within this selection only relationships which had a great influence on her development and which from Mary’s point of view were considered to end in a potential marriage were included. While going through her love attachments the term paper on hand will analyse how she develops from a traditional and conservative women to a modern woman who is slowly embracing the modern world.

II. Edwardian Women: Social and Historical Background of the Second Sex in Edwardian England

The following theoretical part will outline the main characteristics of Edwardian women which are relevant for the subsequent analysis of Lady Mary Crawley. The focus will therefore solely be based on upper class respectively aristocratic women and does not purport to be complete but appropriate for the subsequent analysis and interpretation.

2.1 Marriage, Sex and Love in Edwardian England

“A women’s highest duty is often to suffer and be still” (Ellis 1842: 73). This quote illustrates the Victorian attitude towards women and their position in society. Women totally depended on their husband and were regarded to be obedient. Edwardian England on the contrary brought some changes for the benefits of women. The transition from the 19th to the 20th century also known as the Men and Women period respectively Who’s Who period initiated this process (Park 1987: 54). One major implication on this process had the Married Women Property Act in 1870. This act gave women the opportunity to own and control their own property and was hailed as one major achievement of the women’s movement and emancipation (Combs 2005: 1028). Due to this right women obtained more freedoms which very slowly started to establish new opportunities for women in general (cf. chapter 2.2). Even so this sounds as major achievement for Edwardian and early post-Edwardian England the conservative and traditional Victorian standards endured quite rigid in the beginning of the 20th century which will be outlined in the following.

In early post-Edwardian England marriage and family persisted to play a crucial role for aristocratic women. Since the beginning of the new century brought some major changes concerning the decay of the aristocracy, elite families took great care to make certain that their family dynasty persisted. Accordingly, aristocratic girls went from the beginning of January until July to London city to do the London Season (Steinbach 2005: 93). The London Season was the “marriage market” (94) for the young members of the families where suitable husbands were to meet. Suitable husbands were thereby characterised by a vast fortune, a powerful position and most importantly a noble title. Although society stressed that young women should choose their own husband society events were generally organized to meet suitable and appropriate matches since “this was a society in which many marriages had been arranged by parents and their lawyers, wanting either to join two great estates or to provide one of them, already in debt, with funds from the other” (Priestley 1970: 67). Crucial about this choice was as Steinbach (2005: 94) states “to make an appropriate choice of partner based in part of love”. These two quotes illustrate that a marriage out of love was desirable but not decisive for proper marriage. Besides the substantial economic element also the inheritance elements were crucial for proper marriages. Even so married women were enabled to have and control their own property since the Married Women Property Act in 1870 real estates and especially titles usually went to male descendants (Kohlke 2011: 204). Even so the principle of primogeniture was applied in Edwardian England, daughters usually could not inherit their father’s title even if they had no brothers (204). Such regulations were then recorded within an entail or a fee tail. Families where this condition was applied and who had only female children were hence very keen to find a suitable husband for their daughters to make certain that their dynasty persist. This evidences further that a marriage was especially within the aristocratic families a tool to protect their wealth and dynasty. Correspondingly married women of high titles and property were also under big pressure unless they gave birth to a male heir who would ensure the family title’s continuance (Steinbach 2005: 86). This shows clearly that the role of women in early Edwardian England was mainly childbearing and child nursing. Women were thus still regarded as the angle in the house who regulated the domestic life and who were obedient to her husband as he was still the leader of the family.

This resistance towards conservative Victorian standards in early Edwardian England was further maintained within sexual issues. The attitude towards sexuality was nearly the same as in the Victorian era. Girls were raised up to be innocent and sexual uninterested, the ideal was “that she have [ sic ] little sexual feelings at all, although family affection and the desire for motherhood were considered innate” (Vicinus 1972: IX). Once they were married this attitude was not expected to change. The wife’s role was as Bruley (1999: 14) elucidates “to endure rather to enjoy sex”. Sexual desires of women and masturbation were regarded as vices whereas sexual experiences of men were understandable and even necessary for their health (Bland qtd. in Bruley 1999: 13). This clearly outlines that Edwardian England was still caught within a double standard molality for men and women.

Coming to the question of love and marriage early Edwardian England had its own rules. Since most marriages were only partial based on love as noted above and a divorce was out of the question affairs were sometimes quite common and even tolerated (Priestley 1970: 67). Significant about these affairs were that they needed to be secret, especially secretly kept out of the public because otherwise especially women ended as social miseries. As Priestley (1970: 66) writes in his book The Edwardians “the Edwardian house-party, while severely determined to keep up appearance, discreetly provided opportunities for lovers, not necessarily young, to enjoy themselves”. Nevertheless this illustrates that love and sexuality played an essential role in Edwardian England but not regarding the marriage question. Thus sexual relationships out of marriages were tolerated and accepted but had to be held privately because appearance needed to be kept up, no matter what happened behind closed doors.

In all cases the earlier Victorian standards started to break down. Even so this development persisted over a longer time frame, the direction was set and Edwardian women started to step out of their secure sphere of dependence towards an independent women. This woman was later on known as the New Woman which will be delineate in the next chapter.

2.2 The Concept of the New Woman

From the beginning of the 20th century to the 1920s the traditional and conservative Victorian standards remained quite steady in society, especially for women. In the 1920s this development changed significantly due to the on going feminist movement which caused an emancipation for women and a loss of the obsolescent Victorian manners and morals. Along with this movement the concept of the New Woman and the questioning of the role of a woman was born (Banks 1981: 180). These questions concerned labour, sexuality, love, marriage, fashion, abortion and divorce. In due consideration of the following analyse only the first four aspects with regards to aristocratic women will be discussed.

Labour for aristocratic women was one major transition in the 1920s. As Banks (1981:181) puts it in her Faces of Feminism this time “drew many young women of the upper class into social work, whether voluntarily or, as time went on, as a professional career”. This states quite obviously that even in the upper classes the economic independence and autonomy of women started to play a major role. Women wanted to be engaged in business matters because they demanded gender equality in term of labour and pavement (Lewis 1984: 205). Business matters were thus no longer only reserved to men.

Along with this striving for gender equality also accompanied a more moderate attitude towards sexuality. This development took in Britain a longer time then in America. While in America pre-marital sexuality was from the 1920s quite common it took until 1970s to be the same in Britain (Banks 1981: 184). Until the 1930s the conservative English church still held on to the idea of purity and the sinfulness of sexual relationships within marriage. From the beginning of the 1930s onwards the church changed their rigid position and admitted that sexuality had its value and relevance within marriage and family planning (Campbell qtd. in Banks 1981: 183). Sex was in this regard no longer a female duty to please their husbands and to become pregnant but also a tool for their own sexual pleasure.

Another right or option which raised a great attention within the 1920s was the controlling of fertility. Although birth control was conducted before, the number of products to prevent unwanted pregnancies enlarged highly in post-Edwardian England due to the demand of sexual pleasure even for women. Condoms which were earlier associated with prostitution and disease were from the 1920s onwards a more acceptable method to prohibit pregnancy (Steinbach 2005: 131). Women did not wanted to live in abstinence to prevent pregnancy but wanted to enjoy sexuality which was quite a new subject for that time.

Consequently also the attitude towards love and marriage changed significantly. Aristocratic women did not only marry for a good economic position, power and property but also out of love. This new transition enlarged due to the development of the New Woman. She worked on her own and subsequently attained an autonomous position in society which made her independent of her father or even her future husband (Vicinus 2013: 9). In particular, she gathered much more opportunities for jobs and careers which reduced the need of a marriage out of economic reasons and made room for companionship within marriage (Lewis 1984: 79). Companionship marriage thereby describes a better companionship and equality between married couples. One essential part within companionate marriage was again sexual satisfaction especially for women like Marie Stopes puts it “sexual desires to be both recognized and fulfilled” (Stopes qtd. in Bruley 1999: 76).


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Marriage, Sex and Love in Traditional and Conservative Edwardian England. Lady Mary is Embracing the Modern World
Exemplified in Julian Fellowes’ 'Downton Abbey'
University of Bonn
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ISBN (Book)
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Downton Abbey
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Melina Wiese (Author), 2015, Marriage, Sex and Love in Traditional and Conservative Edwardian England. Lady Mary is Embracing the Modern World, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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