Primogeniture. It was one of those lovely words that rolled from the tongue. I didn't know what it meant, and at age six or seven, I was not in the habit of asking word meanings. It was just a single phrase of word music that landed softly on my ear as my father harangued my mother about the evils of the British class system.
Watching Downton Abbey recently caused me to think deeply about primogeniture and imagine the human implications of the ancient practice of leaving large estates to the eldest male heir.
In the early episodes of the drama, Lady Mary, the eldest daughter of the Earl and Lady Grantham, seems unsympathetic, even cold. While Edith snipes jealously at her elder sister and pities herself over her failed love affairs, Mary maintains a brittle pride and dignity. Sybil, the youngest, is free to rebel by marrying the chauffeur, but the eldest is an integral part of the system.
The actress's portrayal above suggests the cost of Mary's inherited "privilege" of primogeniture. Because she is female, she must stand by while her father grooms Matthew Crawley, a stranger to the family but Lord Grantham's closest male relative, to inherit her home. Later, with the war looming, she falls for Matthew, and has to learn to trust this cuckoo in her nest. When their son George is born, this new male heir will bypass Mary to become the future Lord Grantham.
Mary's sudden widowhood does not threaten her son's right to the title, but he is a child and Mary is still young. Ergo, she must re-marry, and much hangs on her choice of husband. Not only must he be approved by her father, he must be capable of preserving Downton through times of radical social and economic change. Easier said than done.
Of course Mary is not the only character whose destiny is driven by rules of primogeniture. The stubborn but warmhearted Isobel renounces her beloved Lord Merton because his cruel eldest, Larry Grey, is determined to inherit all. Unconcerned about the wishes of his aging parent, Larry uses ruthless tactics in his effort to separate Isobel from his father's wealth.
In Downton Abbey, we see clearly how social rules and hierarchies press upon individual lives. Yet contemporary societies also clip our wings, fitting us into the roles that serve the system. Perhaps the appeal of this drama of class evokes in contemporary viewers the repressed awareness that we too are being molded by social forces far more powerful than our individual desires.