Sex, scandal and Marie Stopes: would Downton’s Lady Mary really have slept with Lord Gillingham?

Downton Abbey's sexy story lines have got us thinking about what was really going on between the bed sheets during the 1920s...

Downton Abbey has got a bit saucy of late. Last series we watched Lady Edith give into her desires and end up with a secret love child to conceal – and the most recent episode saw Lady Mary arrive at a hotel in Liverpool to “make love all night” with a potential husband. Plus we’ve witnessed poor Anna being sent out to stock up on contraception…


I think it’s fair to saw we are all a little bit shocked about how modern our favourite period drama is getting. But it’s also got us thinking: just how likely was it for the daughter of an Earl to have it away with a suitor before they’d said ‘I do’? Was contraception common knowledge? And just what would happen if either Edith’s or Mary’s sexy secrets were exposed?

We spoke to Emily Brand, History Revealed‘s social, sexual and romantic history expert (What a job, eh?), about just what was going on between the bed sheets in the 1920s. And it’s fair to say that the decade was a progressive one when it came to attitudes surrounding sex…

“Perhaps partly as an antidote to the horrors of the First World War, there was a public mood of sexual ‘awakening’, which manifested itself in sex manuals, novels, public discussion about birth control and increasing attention on the nature of female sexuality,” says Brand.

But this change in attitudes was not embraced by all (we can’t quite imagine Carson getting on board…) – “this was the decade in which Lady Chatterley’s Lover was first privately published – the outrage proves that the world at large was not quite ready.”

Sex before walking down the aisle definitely remained taboo. “Women were certainly still taught to see their virginity as their most treasured possession,” says Brand. “Pre-marital sex, especially for women, was very much frowned upon, and the notion of female sexuality was a disturbing one.”

So there’s little doubt that by doing the dirty with their potential partners, both the Crawley sisters were taking big risks. In fact, having sex outside of the marriage bed could directly affect “future marriage prospects and financial security.”

“[Sex] carried particular concerns for the upper-classes, whose entire inheritance systems were based in a woman’s virtue and honesty about sexual experience,” says Brand. Especially if, like Edith, the encounter resulted in a pregnancy…

“There was a stigma attached to out-of-wedlock births for all classes, but it was even less acceptable for the well-to-do, who had much more to lose in terms of reputation. The sense of public shame was still acute, and the public thirst for scandal made it likely that the story may even have made its way into the papers. Like Edith, it is likely that many took all steps possible to conceal the event even from their own families.”

Not that there wasn’t anything women could do to prevent that outcome. We all saw Lady Mary whip out her copy of a Marie Stopes book. Stopes’ publications were “condemned by the church, press and medical establishment” and yet were “hugely popular and sold out rapidly.”

“Rubber condoms were first developed during the Victorian era. A switch to latex in the 1920s meant that they were available in their millions by the end of the decade,” reveals Brand. But the likes of Anna and Daisy were likely to be none the wiser – “This information remained largely the realm of the educated classes.”

And as for whether a lady’s maid like Anna really would be sent out to buy contraception, Brand isn’t so sure: “The likelihood of an aristocratic lady having formed such an open and intimate relationship with her maid as Mary does with Anna is debatable.”


Visit History Revealed for more fascinating insights into our past