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Op-Ed: The Six Degrees of Separation of Marigold, Downton Abbey’s Adoption Prop

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[Caution: spoilers]

Facing all of the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune that Julian Fellowes can fling at her, Lady Edith Crawley’s storylines from Season 5 of Downton Abbey and the beginning of the final Season 6 have followed her as she struggles with the consequences of an unintended pregnancy by her disappeared and possibly dead fiancé. Fearing social judgment, family shame, and the vicious snark of sister Mary, she travels on an extended tour of Europe with her aunt. While there, she gives birth to a daughter, Marigold, whom they place with a Swiss couple. Regretting her decision, she conceives a scheme to bring the child to England and place her closer to Downton with tenant farmer family the Drewes, where she can visit her often, to the growing consternation of Mrs. Drewe and Mary’s aforementioned snark. Season 5 ends with Edith unable to bear even this separation and fleeing with Marigold to London until the family devises a way by which Edith can “adopt” Marigold as a ward of the family and bestow favors on her that no tenant family could. Edith is happy, though still wary of Mary, and the curtain falls without mention of the Drewes.

I’ll be straight with you: I’m an adoptive mother, and we’ve had an open adoption with my son’s birth mother until recently, when she chose to drift away. There are no easy emotions in adoption, even in a case like ours, where we communicated constantly with the birth mother and have cared for our son since she gave birth to him and gave him to us. There are no easy emotions in the Downton case, either. After last season’s finale, there were some good articles exploring it from various vantage points: birth mothers from the 1960s who recognize Edith’s pain and shame on [Birth Mother] First Mother Forum; adoptive father Dr. Russell Saunders on The Daily Beast who is outraged on the Drewes’ behalf; and Caitlyn Gallagher on Bustle about the legality of Lady Edith’s actions in 1924. Their disagreements have demonstrated that there still is no such thing as Solomon’s wisdom in deciding who the child’s true mother is.

This conflict only intensifies at the start of Season 6, when Mrs. Drewe temporarily kidnaps Marigold from a crowded county fair. While the child is quickly recovered, the incident leads to the Drewes’ dismissal from a farm the family has inhabited for generations. By Episode 4, Daisy’s father-in-law Mr. Mason has been happily installed in their place and the Drewes, no further concern of ours, have vanished.

I’ll say again, that I’m an adoptive mother. You’ll assume that I feel for Mrs. Drewe, and I do. I also feel for Lady Edith. And for the forgotten and unnamed Swiss mother who cared for Marigold for the first several months. But you know what? This isn’t about me and my empathies. It isn’t even about all Marigold’s many mothers.

It’s about Marigold. It’s about her being used as a prop. It’s about the various tropes of adoption that are being perpetuated: that adoptive children are “lucky” to be taken from poorer families and raised with more advantages, that the central conflict of adoption is about competing claims of motherhood, that unplanned pregnancies are shameful, that as long as the child is placed in the “right” home the adoption will be happy. The pretense that adoption is not, at its heart, about loss.

And these are tropes you hear even in the “good” adoptions – forget about the more distressing ones. Consider the six degrees of separation of Marigold: 1. from her birthmother, Lady Edith, when she’s placed with the Swiss family; 2. from the Swiss family when she’s brought to England and placed with the Drewes; 3. from the Drewes when she’s abducted by Lady Edith to London; 4. from London when she’s placed at Downton; 5. when she’s abducted by Mrs. Drewe; 6. when she’s returned to Downton, a place where, while loved, she is often in the care of the nanny. And here’s where my empathies are the strongest: can you imagine the amount of trauma this little girl has experienced in the first two years of her life? The separation anxiety and bonding disorders she would suffer?

Despite the series attempting to mirror the more progressive views of its viewers – homosexuality, birth control, interracial relationships – this is one topic where progress has failed. Or, perhaps, the failure is that attitudes toward adopted children have progressed so little.

It’s about Marigold. And yet, according to Downton Abbey, it is not.

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Poet and essayist Heidi Czerwiec is the author of two recent chapbooks: A Is For A-ke, The Chinese Monster and Sweet/Crude: A Bakken Boom Cycle. She is at work on a series of essays about her relationship with her adopted son’s birthmother, titled Real Mother.


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I have been uncomfortable, too, about Marigold, Aside from the trauma, it is so painful to be the cause of so much secrecy and dissension. I'm an adoptive mother, too, and I hate seeing this child used as a "prop" to further the story, Thanks for writing about this,
Heidi, thank you for sharing your thoughts on this distressing issue. It's baffling that a program so devoted to accuracy where it applies to period detail should be so sloppy about their handling of this very human dilemma.
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