Watching Downton Abbey With An Historian: Social Ills -The Toast

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Previous installments in this series can be found here. There will be spoilers. “An historian” is a perfectly acceptable Commonwealth convention, haters to the left [side of the road.]

I’ve been thinking all season about how the state, in Downton Abbey, looms just off-screen. Lord Grantham and his fellow aristocrats are obviously part of a ruling elite, but the modern state itself is generally nearly invisible, just poking its head around for brief and usually implausible moments: in the form of the workhouse, earlier this season, or the police sent to investigate the charges of homosexual conduct against Thomas Barrow, in an earlier season.

What responsibility does society have for its individual members? And what role should the state play in ensuring that those responsibilities are met, and at what cost to individual liberty? These questions animated some of the major political shifts happening in Britain in the early twentieth century, and if you look closely, they’re also animating several of Downton’s narrative arcs.

170px-David_Lloyd_George_1908Before World War I, there were two main parties in British politics: the Conservatives (colloquially, the Tories) and the Liberals. In the immediate pre-war years, the Liberals, led by H. H. Asquith, were dominant. In 1909, then-chancellor David Lloyd George proposed the so-called “People’s Budget,” which introduced new taxes on income and land in order to pay for a variety of new social welfare measures. The House of Lords vetoed the budget, leading to an epic electoral showdown featuring Lloyd George touring the country in support of his budget. It passed the next year, and in 1911, the Liberals passed the Parliament Act, ending the Lords’ veto power forever. It was a ‘nuclear option’ far beyond those dreamed of by our current legislators.

The new Liberal budget provided measures to deal with a range of social ills—the new old age pension was, touchingly, nicknamed the “Lloyd George.” It represented the legislative manifestation of a fundamental shift in ideas about the responsibility of the government to the people, and about the necessity to tax the wealthy in order to pay for welfare programs. It’s no accident that Lloyd George is the only politician consistently name-checked by Downton characters: his brand of Liberalism was fundamentally opposed to the paternalist noblesse oblige espoused by Lord Grantham.

lady-mary-charles-blake-downton-abbeyThe clash between the new Liberalism and traditional conservatism is dramatized by Lady Mary and Mr. Blake. As Mr. Blake retorts to Lady Mary before their epic pig-sty bonding moment, “Mr. Lloyd George is more concerned with feeding the population than rescuing the aristocracy.” After my column on aristocracy, a friend e-mailed to ask if the landed estates could have been economically sustainable without the heavy death duties and taxes. The answer depends, in part, on how much suffering and insecurity you’re willing to tolerate among the poorest people. Is it worth it to sell off some of Downton Abbey, if it means unemployment insurance for Molesley and an old-age pension for Mrs. Patmore once her sight finally fails?

But by 1922, the Liberal Party was in deep trouble. Lloyd George became Prime Minister in 1916, earning the nickname ‘The Man Who Won the War,” but he led an increasingly conservative coalition government. Dissident Liberals led by Asquith opposed the coalition on a variety of grounds, including its bloody counter-insurgency war in Ireland. Tom Branson, former socialist, is understandably lukewarm about going to see a coalition Liberal MP speak in Ripon, and he’s rightly skeptical of the politician’s claim that the split in the party is unimportant. In fact, the party would lose power permanently by the end of the year, and would be eclipsed by the rise of the Labour Party. Tom is picking a good moment to return to politics, if he wants to return to his socialist roots.

url-3The state looms over Lady Edith, too, though in a very different way. In 1922, abortion was still illegal in England. It had first become a statutory offence in 1803; the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act imposed the most severe penalties in Europe for attempting to procure an abortion, up to imprisonment for life. Yet abortion, like birth control, was common in these years, and was increasingly an acceptable subject for public discourse.

Numbers are obviously quite difficult to obtain, but most women probably would have used abortifacient drugs, often prescribed and advertised as a means of ‘regulating’ or ‘restoring’ menstruation rather than as inducing abortion. Given that pregnancy was popularly not regarded to have begun in earnest until quickening, or the first movement of the fetus, the distinction would have been blurry in any case. Instrumental procedures, such as the one that Lady Edith sought, were more clear-cut, though the law was still difficult to enforce, and medical practitioners, especially men, were usually able to argue that the procedure was a necessary treatment.

9781136248733_p0_v1_s260x420Aunt Rosamund’s skepticism and low lighting shroud the clinic visited by Lady Edith in an air of unsavory mystery, and there were certainly amateurs at work in this field: it is a chilling fact that many prosecutions for detected abortion were unable to proceed because the woman was dead. Still, a woman of Lady Edith’s status and connections would have had better options. Many doctors apparently referred their patients to Dr. Daniel Powell, who had twice between acquitted of manslaughter; women from around the country attended his funeral in 1938, and even a detective who followed him admitted: “he was a great hearted and fearless man whose work was directed by the highest motives.” Dr. Laura Sanders-Bliss was less successful in avoiding the law: after a police raid on her practice, she was struck from the medical register and sentenced to three years penal servitude in 1936. Yet at the same time, case law supported the use of therapeutic abortion, and juries were generally reluctant to convict accused medical practitioners.

Those who argued, in the interwar decades, for more thoroughgoing prosecution of abortion sometimes cited the state’s interest in increasing the size and health its population. This argument was doomed to failure. Abortion was legalized in England in 1967, the same year that homosexual acts in private between men over the age of 21 was decriminalized. In both cases, privacy was a central concern: the notion that there were realms of private life into which the state should not venture. Lord Grantham, of course, might have seen the Liberal Party’s reforms as intrusions into the private running of his estate and his personal relationships with tenants and employees. Downton Abbey is ultimately a drama of private life, obsessed with domestic details and passing lightly over the politics of the day. But the boundaries between public and private are never so clearly drawn; the power of the state seeps into the most personal of relationships, for good and for ill.


Barbara Brookes, Abortion in England 1900-1967 (London: Croom Helm, 1988)

John Keown, Abortion, Doctors, and the Law: Some Aspects of the Legal Regulation of Abortion in England from 1803 to 1982 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988)

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