Why Lady Edith’s secret child storyline is brilliant

Period drama’s main job is to act as entertainment and escapism but it's also great when it makes us think, says Ellie Walker-Arnott

Lady Edith has never been the most loved of the Crawley clan. She was stroppy, spoilt and petulant from the very first episode. We’ve never quite forgiven her for revealing Mary’s sexy Pamuk secret in the first series and since then she’s always seemed to be in the shadow of either her beautiful, elegant elder sister or her vibrant, rebellious younger one.


But that all started to change last series when, after that altar jilting and the death of Sybil in season three, Edith decided to take a different path and become a writer in London. (This career choice in no way affected my sudden change of heart towards her. Promise.)

Now the middle Crawley sister is completely and utterly transformed at the start of series five. 

After indulging in a little pre-marital sex with her charming newspaper editor, Edith found herself pregnant with a missing man’s baby. Now the child is living with Mr Drewe – aka the pig man – mere metres from Downton Abbey and yet the little girl is still a complete secret from most of Edith’s family.

Though we all love a little melodrama (there’s no way she’ll stay a secret for long – oh, the jeopardy!), this unfortunate turn of events actually shines a light on how difficult it was to be a young woman in the 1920s. As Lady Mary puts into words in the opening episode: “I feel we do these things rather oddly. Even now we must decide whether to share our lives with someone without ever spending any real time with them. Let alone, you know…”

A recent study found that in 2014 the average woman will kiss 15 men, have two long-term relationships and end up with her heart broken twice before settling down. And in an age where meeting your partner through an app like Tinder or a one-night-stand is commonplace, it seems unthinkable to marry someone you’ve barely spent any time with.

But in the 1920s it was the reality. And if you hazarded becoming ‘over familiar’ with your potential husband, you’d also risk having to visit an illegal abortionist, give up your child in secret or face complete and utter social scandal and exclusion.

Sure, period drama’s main job is to act as entertainment and escapism – from dreary autumnal Sundays that are quickly tick-tock-ing into Monday mornings – with period petticoats, vintage china and quotable one-liners, but it’s also great when it makes us think.

Although the age of Downton Abbey seems like eons ago, wind back the clock a century and people not dissimilar to the Crawleys and their staff really did reside in ginormous country piles. There was probably a tad less day-to-day scandal and we doubt every aristocratic family had someone as wonderful as the Dowager Countess at its head, but that world and the society they live in did very much exist.

Not only has Edith’s new storyline made her feel more real, more tangible and more relatable as a character, it’s also reminded us of how far we’ve come and how lucky we are to be able to live our lives – and try out potential partners – without fear and the threat of unimaginable emotional pain. 


Downton Abbey continues on Sundays at 9:00pm on ITV