(This article was originally featured on Smitten By Britain on Feb. 12, 2014.)
Edith faces a situation women at this time dreaded. Despite reassurance from Cora that she is not a bad person, she can’t help but feel differently. Along with the continued lack of information on Gregson, she is now pregnant and unmarried. Her emotions are a powerful mix of regret, worry, and hints of internalized social shame.
Even though attitudes towards women’s behavior were changing, sex before marriage was still frowned upon by many. Gregson’s estrangement because of an asylum commitment still did not erase the stain of adultery. Her options of dealing with the pregnancy are abortion or adoption. No matter what option a woman chose, disownment and disinheritance were a common punishment for women who broke these social and moral rules.
If Edith chose to raise her child, she would be treated in a similar fashion to Ethel in series three. Ethel is an example of the woman Edith fears of being. The workforce was completely closed off to her resulting in her turning to prostitution. Most people in the village shunned her and refused to show her any respect. This was an option very few women chose due to the severe social stigma at the time.
Most women who were pregnant out of wedlock at this time, hid their pregnancy and gave away their babies after birth. Many babies were given to orphan homes, religious institutions, or to a childless couple. In some cases, grandparents and other relatives raised illegitimate children as if they were naturally born to them. Ethel gave up custody of her son to his grandparents because she could not provide for him. Unfortunately, in some cases, these children were neglected or abused by their new families.
Fear of becoming a figure of pity and dislike influences Edith’s decision to seek an abortion and she travels to London in order to have the procedure. A highly reluctant Aunt Rosamund is there to provide emotional support. Women who sought an abortion in this period of history were considered just as legally guilty as the doctors and nurses who conducted the procedure.
In addition to legal risks, there were health risks as well. Women often died of complications from abortions due to the lack of medical knowledge we have today. Socially, the majority of people believed abortions were murder and/or a serious sin. Edith would be taking an even bigger risk to solve the problems of her initial risk-taking.
As Edith waits for the doctor to see her, she changes her mind about abortion. Seeing another patient in distress makes her realize that this choice is not right for her. Although we don’t see Aunt Rosamund’s complete reaction, it is safe to assume she is relieved. While women in today’s age have more reproductive rights, the deeply personal factors that influence this decision have not changed. Edith is still motivated by the hope that Gregson will be found safe and sound.
The rest of the season will be sure to highlight Edith’s struggles. Fear of discovery and worry about the future will continue to cause her pain. As long as Aunt Rosamund keeps her secret, she won’t become a permanent outcast.