Shame, on Downton Abbey

Last night’s episode (4.6) pulled forward Lady Edith’s plot line; her lover still missing in Germany, her pregnancy confirmed last week (4.5), she decides the only course of action available to her is abortion.  It’s not a matter of having too many mouths to feed (a tension explored in Call the Midwife), or that the baby is even unwanted–Edith gives a heart-breaking line about loving the child as well as its father–but the issue of society.

Society, decorum, expectations–there are lots of names for the pressure cooker in which Lady Edith found herself, and I wonder how much has changed in the ensuing century.

For example, it’s difficult for me to imagine that not one young lady at Duke University, my alma mater, fell pregnant during my tenure there, but I never once saw a fellow college student carrying a baby.

What sort of world have we created for ourselves when young women come to believe that if they are found out to be sexually active (like Edith, like Duke ladies) outside of wedlock, they’d rather put themselves and their child through a permanent and harrowing experience like abortion than endure nine months of a protruding belly in public?

Commenting on Edith’s “indiscretion” last week, someone said, “She should have guarded her treasure!”  And, indeed, wouldn’t it have been best for Edith and her friend to wait to engage intimately until they were in the (relatively) socially and spiritually stable state of marriage?  Of course.  It would have been best for each of us to never have lost our temper with out parents, or to not lie to our best friend, or to face honestly our selfishness–but do we always guard our relationships and our character so carefully?

It’s easy to commit to supporting and celebrating life, but when the moment comes that you have to choose whether you’ll tell no one about the “mistake” you’ve made, or let everyone–your family, friends, strangers–see the Scarlet “A” on your chest (i mean, in your belly), it becomes much, much harder (for many young women, it becomes impossible).

Lady Edith, and myriad young women today, are subject to this debilitating shame.  Of course, it is selfish for shame to be prioritized over the life of another, but the culture of social consequences still strikes deep; young women confuse perceived sexual purity as more important than life itself.