I don’t know how it happened but I missed the wonderful, splendid Masterpiece series that is Downton Abbey. After watching the finale first, I became intrigued and have been watching all six seasons of the show, albeit somewhat out of order. Let’s just say I now know the meaning of the term ‘binge-watch’. Downton is a period drama, or soap opera, depending on your point of view, but what a fabulously acted one. As a matter of fact, I had to keep reminding myself that these people are only fictional characters, that they didn’t really exist.
Of course, since adoption is what I focus on, I was especially intrigued by the role that adoption played in the series. In one major storyline, the middle daughter of the lord and lady of the house, Lady Edith, becomes pregnant by her fiancé, who then goes missing and never returns to marry her before the child is born. Needless to say, it was completely unacceptable for any woman to get pregnant out of wedlock in those days but especially so for a woman of the aristocracy. Through an intriguing series of plot twists and turns, first an out of country adoption which Lady Edith could not go through with, and then choosing to place the child with a local family, the show made it quite clear that Lady Edith would never get over the loss of her child. But what I found most interesting is that when Edith decided that she absolutely could not live without her daughter and had to bring her home–even though that meant concocting a story that she was the child’s guardian rather than her natural mother–the show did not tug at viewers’ heartstrings by stressing the pain of the child’s foster mother and how heartless the natural mother was for taking back her child. The show did not try to hide the adoptive mother’s* pain, but at no time did it stress that Lady Edith was wrong for taking her child back or imply that it was in any way better for the child to remain with the adoptive parents; none of this “It’s the only home she’s ever known” business, which we are all too familiar with here in the states. The most salient feature of adoption from the British perspective seemed to be that the bond between the natural mother and child is paramount. And I, for one, am very glad that Edith’s daughter, little Miss Marigold, ended up being raised in the nursery with her cousins. She is in the family where she belongs, and it’s not as if they didn’t have enough money to keep her!
Whether upstairs or downstairs, having a child out of wedlock was guaranteed to wreak havoc on one’s life and position. In another storyline, housemaid Ethel becomes pregnant by an officer convalescing during World War I, when the Abbey was turned into a hospital for wounded soldiers. In Ethel’s case her story goes from bad to worse. She gets unceremoniously sacked from her job for her ‘indiscretion’ and ends up with no other option but working as a prostitute to support herself and her son, Charlie. The boy does have wealthy paternal grandparents and Ethel makes repeated attempt to contact them. At first they rebuff her, but then have a change of heart. Despite her fall from grace, Ethel still has strong support from other characters on the show to keep her son, in particular from Mrs. Isobel Crawley, a wonderful open-minded character who worked as both a nurse and a social worker. Mrs. Crawley encouraged Ethel to not make the decision lightly to give her son to his grandparents, and even strongly encouraged her to keep him, despite all the difficulties. She even employed “fallen woman” Ethel as a cook-housekeeper in her own home, risking ostracism from her friends and family. In the end, however, Ethel does decide, although clearly brokenhearted, to allow Charlie’s grandparents to raise him.
First Mother forum’s Lorraine Dusky was triggered (i.e. shed buckets of tears) when Ethel is firm in her decision to give her child up. From an adoptee perspective, this outcome wasn’t as devastating for me. I reasoned the child will be with his kin and there are a few valid reasons when a child might be better off being adopted. Actually, I don’t recall if legal adoption was mentioned or just that the child would be raised by his paternal grandparents. But the story does have an even happier ending, in my opinion, when Ethel accepts another position, as a housemaid and cook, in a home closer to her son. This will ensure that she will still be able to have some type of connection with him. Once again, through this below stairs storyline, the British mentality was clear. The strongest bond is between a mother and her child and it is only in the rarest of circumstances that they should ever be separated. Even another character, a lady’s maid named Anna, had a line of dialogue that went, “They say a mother’s love is the strongest love there is.” Well, you can’t get much clearer than that!
Downton Abbey takes place in the early part of the 20th century, starting in 1912 with the sinking of the Titanic and ending on New Year’s Day 1926. But the British attitude that sided with the child remaining with his or her natural mother and against widespread adoption seemed to exist even before then, if world renowned mystery writer Agatha Christie’s family’s story is any indication. Dame Agatha’s own mother was placed in a kinship adoption in the 19th century and, as recounted in her autobiography, she is quite vocal about her views on adoption.
But let’s now come back to the current day and travel across the pond, and that brings me to Dr. Phil. I know, I know. But he’s as good an example as any to showcase this difference in attitude between the Brits and the Yanks when it comes to adoption. I’ll admit I have been staging a one-woman boycott of Dr. Phil after his outrageous part in stealing Veronica Brown from her own father, half-sister and extended family, although I had never really been a fan. He may be considered America’s guru but he has certainly never been mine. But I happened to catch a preview for a two-part show called “Woman claims daughter was illegally adopted”, and since it looked like he might be willing to support a natural family for once, I decided to tune in.
The condensed version of the story is that a family, consisting of a grandmother and her two teenage daughters, was homeless and living in their car, when the county, through what they claim was an illegal maneuver, took the older teen’s baby daughter and finalized an adoption without any family member’s consent. So what we saw on the show were these highly emotional family members who, I’m sorry to say, may have come across to many viewers as ‘hysterical’. But this family wasn’t crazy by any means. And if they came across as overly emotional that’s because their reaction is precisely what happens when people lose a beloved family member to strangers against their will. They were simply expressing the raw and honest emotions at the loss of their daughter, granddaughter, and niece, respectively.
In what I considered an unexpected twist, the devastated first grandmother said that the loss of her granddaughter was the impetus for her to attend law school. Dr. Phil used this information to remind her that she must therefore know that the most basic principle in law is “possession is 9/10th of the law”. Well, my ears certainly perked at hearing that. I mean, where was this principle when Veronica Rose Brown was living happily with her father and stepmother and Dr. Phil did everything he could to have her returned to the Capobiancos? A couple she had not seen in over two years and probably didn’t even remember. Does Dr. Phil believe “possession is 9/10th of the law” only applies when prospective adoptive parents have or just want the kid? It certainly seems that way.
Now I’m a Yank but I come from British stock on my father’s side (maybe they should have stayed?! ha ha), and although I was born almost 40 years after the fictional Marigold, society’s attitudes vis-à-vis out of wedlock motherhood didn’t seem to have changed very much on either side of the Atlantic. It’s amazing to think that with all the enormous, even mind-blowing, changes in technology AND society during that time, bearing a child out of wedlock was still the ultimate ‘sin’ even when yours truly was born.
Even today the percentage of adoptions in the U.S. is much higher than in the U.K., even accounting for the difference in size and population. There are many factors of course that go into explaining this difference, but there does seem to be a stark difference in attitude about the importance of the biological mother/child bond that stretches back over more than a century. And I do so wish we could get more of their attitude transported to our side of the Atlantic. The acknowledgement of the negative effects of separating a natural mother and child is apparently so important in British culture that author Jessica Fellowes, niece of Downton Abbey creator and writer Julian Fellowes, even wrote “viewers should not judge Lady Edith harshly for deciding not to keep her own child.”** I would never assume that American viewers would judge her harshly. The prevailing attitude here would more likely be that adoption is a wonderful option for the child.
So let me just say this: if these two shows were a sporting match, instead of a period drama and a talk show, I’d be rooting for team Brit.
*Technically, the farmer and his wife were not the child’s adoptive parents since prior to 1926 there was no formal legal system of adoption in England. **