contraception Downton Abbey

Love, Lust, and Sexual Authenticity in Downton Abbey

6:00:00 AMKaitlin Fellrath

It is surprising what television shows, films, and music can teach us about the human experience.

One of my favorite shows is Downton Abbey, a British television series that depicts the life of English aristocrats and their servants at the dawn of the twentieth century. I believe that Downton Abbey rightly portrays the distinction between the satisfaction of mere sexual pleasure and the totality of authentic wedded love, granted not to its fullest extent. [SPOILERS ahead for those who have not seen the latest season, currently airing on PBS.]

Born into aristocracy, Lady Mary Crawley has very few options when it comes to her life's direction. As she opines in the first season, "How many times am I to be ordered to marry the man sitting next to me at dinner?" She must marry, and marry well.

At the beginning of the series, Mary is an impenetrable fortress of ice-cold glares and caustic remarks, caught up in her own selfishness. Beneath this veneer, however, is a vulnerability that she tries desperately to keep hidden. In walks her distant cousin, Matthew Crawley, a lowly lawyer and the man who is set to inherit the family's estate. Matthew is a good man, and despite her initial resistance, Mary falls in love with him. However, her selfishness gets in the way, and she refuses Matthew's proposal of marriage in the hope of finding a suitor with a higher social status. 

As the second season opens, Mary deeply regrets her decision to reject Matthew, which she recognizes as a consequence of her own self-absorption. Receiving a rejection from the woman he loves, Matthew begins a relationship with another woman and is now engaged to her. It is now 1914, and the First World War has broken out. Matthew leaves Downton for the trenches of France, where he is seriously injured. Mary no longer has any hope of making Matthew her own, now that he is engaged to another woman. However, she chooses to remain at his bedside. Mary can get nothing out of caring for the man she rejected, nothing but a broken heart. Yet she makes herself vulnerable, casting aside her own interests and choosing to love him while expecting nothing in return. Mary's change of heart leads the two to reconciliation and ultimately, to marriage.  

Matthew and Mary's relationship was always characterized by its authenticity, from Mary's sorrowful admission of her previous sexual liaison to Matthew's kiss the night before their wedding. Their marriage, too, had a rightness to it. Mary knew she had married a man whose moral goodness far exceeded hers, yet she strove to be worthy of him and for him. Matthew made Mary a better person, and as she later tells him, more like her true self. For that is what authentic love does. It brings us out of her own selfishness and calls us to something higher and more real.  

There is a beautiful scene at the end of the third season, after the birth of their first child. Matthew comes to visit his wife as she lays in the hospital bed. He tells her, "You're going to be such a wonderful mother."  

Mary looks at him questioningly and asks, "How do you know?"  

"Because you're a wonderful woman."  

Matthew sees the part of Mary that she cannot, that part that is capable of authentic love.  

In the same scene, Mary tells Matthew, "I hope I'm allowed to be your Mary Crawley for all eternity, and not anyone else's version." Matthew looks at her and says, "You'll be my Mary, always, because mine is the true Mary."  

This is authentic sexual love, a love that reveals the true self, without reluctance and with great joy. 

However, after her husband's untimely death, Mary seems to forget the true Mary that Matthew found buried within her. In an attempt to satisfy her own lust, she buys into the cheapening of human sexuality that began in the 1920's with the wider social acceptance of divorce and contraception. In an encounter that lacks all the sweetness and romance that characterized her first marriage, Mary sleeps with one of her suitors to see if they are "suited" to one another before they marry. They meet at a hotel and conduct the entire affair in secret, with Mary using contraception to avoid any "consequences." There is no joy in their union: just the satisfaction of sexual pleasure with a vague expectation of future commitment.

When Mary meets her suitor to tell him she wants to end the relationship, things quickly go sour. He accuses her of sexual dishonesty: "You sleep with a man because he wants to marry you, but now you change your mind ... It's insane!" There is no authenticity or innocence here, only hearts wounded by sin and selfishness.  

Downton Abbey depicts love, lust, and everything in between in a way that reveals the truth of authentic love. Authentic lovers are those who have made a sacred vow, who are committed to one another in the profoundest way possible. It is only then that human sexuality can flourish as it was meant to. 

Authentic lovers are not blind, contrary to the old adage. Rather, they recognize their beloved as a whole person and revel in the truth and depth and realness of them. This is love that can last, not just for a few episodes, but for a whole lifetime.

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