Emily Hagens is co-curator of Downton Abbey: Behind the Scenes of Health and Illness and a Ph.D. candidate in the Program in the History of Science, Technology and Medicine at the University of Minnesota. Aside from Masterpiece Theater and rare books, she studies 16th century Italian domestic medicine and vernacular print and manuscript culture.
After a long wait, season 4 of Downton finally reappeared on PBS at the beginning of January! Lois Hendrickson and I, co-curators of the Wangensteen Historical Library of Biology and Medicine's current exhibit Downton Abbey: Behind the Scenes of Health and Illness, have been continuing our conversation about Downton and health. The war over, the family seemed quite settled again, however Matthew's fatal car crash at the end of season 3 foreshadowed significant shifts in the way the Abbey's characters would view the world and each other. The subtle medical concerns the characters continue to deal with reflect these newfound nuances. Unlike the bombastic and brutal problems of seasons one through three, The Great War, Spanish Influenza, and Sybil's eclampsia, this season has so far presented issues that reveal the impact that early twentieth-century society had on the way people dealt with their health.
Lady Edith has become a more significant and substantial character and many medical questions have revolved around her. Edith's love and editor, Mr. Gregson, has a wife in a mental institution. Although viewers have not yet met this character, it is interesting to think about the legal status of insane people in early 20th-century England. According to A Practical Treatise on the Law of Marriage and Divorce by Leonard Shelford (1841), "The subsequent insanity of a person who was of sound mind at the time of the marriage, does not avoid it, (n) nor release the parties from the duties of their marriage vow." (163) Gregson decides to become a German citizen, giving him new legal avenues to rid himself of his wife in hopes of being with Edith.