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“Downton Abbey: Behind the Scenes of Health and Illness”

By February 18, 2014September 16th, 2023No Comments

Emily Hagens is co-curator of Downton Abbey: Behind the Scenes of Health and Illness and a Ph.D. candidate in the Program in the History of Science, Technology and Medicine at the University of MinnesotaAside from Masterpiece Theater and rare books, she studies 16th century Italian domestic medicine and vernacular print and manuscript culture.

Downton Abbey Poster.JPGAfter a long wait, season 4 of Downton finally reappeared on PBS at the beginning of January! Lois Hendrickson and I, co-curators of the Wangensteen Historical Library of Biology and Medicine’s current exhibitDownton Abbey: Behind the Scenes of Health and Illness, have been continuing our conversation about Downton and health. The war over, the family seemed quite settled again, however Matthew’s fatal car crash at the end of season 3 foreshadowed significant shifts in the way the Abbey’s characters would view the world and each other. The subtle medical concerns the characters continue to deal with reflect these newfound nuances. Unlike the bombastic and brutal problems of seasons one through three, The Great War, Spanish Influenza, and Sybil’s eclampsia, this season has so far presented issues that reveal the impact that early twentieth-century society had on the way people dealt with their health.

Lady Edith has become a more significant and substantial character and many medical questions have revolved around her. Edith’s love and editor, Mr. Gregson, has a wife in a mental institution. Although viewers have not yet met this character, it is interesting to think about the legal status of insane people in early 20th-century England. According to A Practical Treatise on the Law of Marriage and Divorce by Leonard Shelford (1841), “The subsequent insanity of a person who was of sound mind at the time of the marriage, does not avoid it, (n) nor release the parties from the duties of their marriage vow.” (163) Gregson decides to become a German citizen, giving him new legal avenues to rid himself of his wife in hopes of being with Edith. 

Unfortunately, Mr. Gregson’s time in Germany has been mysterious thus far, we haven’t heard from him in several episodes. His ghost lingers, though, in the form of Edith’s unplanned pregnancy. In a time period when unwed mothers were a social disgrace, (remember the servant Ethel Parks who was dismissed from Downton?) Edith has been faced with a difficult decision. The scandal of being an unwed mother of means is an impossible challenge. She very nearly submits to an illegal and dangerous operation, in spite of the cultural stigma against abortion in this time period. Although we have yet to see what Edith will ultimately decide to do about the child, it is clear that her medical decision has been very much influenced by what her social situation has expected her to do.

Downton Abbey: Behind the Scenes of Health and Illness will be at the Wangensteen through May. The library is open from 8:00 am – 4:30 pm Monday thru Friday, the first Saturday of every month from noon to 4:00 pm, and the third Thursday of every month from 8:00 am – 6:30 pm. Stop by, see the exhibit, and let us know how you feel about this season! 

Mark Engebretson

Author Mark Engebretson

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