As Seen on TV: Marie Stopes and Downton Abbey

Wednesday, February 11, 2015 - 7:30am to Saturday, February 28, 2015 - 5:00pm

Recently, the name “Marie Stopes” came up on the popular television show, Downton Abbey. On episode 2 of season 5, which aired on PBS on 11 January 2015, Lady Mary is shown holding a book by Marie Stopes and mentions the author as she instructs Anna Bates to run an errand on her behalf. Lady Mary sends her lady’s maid  because the errand apparently would be too indecent for a woman of Lady Mary’s social stature to do herself—the implication is that Mary needs something pertaining to contraception.  This is the second time the television program referenced Stopes, the first time being in the previous season.

Marie Charlotte Carmichael Stopes (1880 - 1958) was a British author, scientist, and renowned activist for women’s rights and birth control. Her first book, Married Love, first published in 1918, broached the topic of sex and family planning for married couples and was both controversial and influential. Stopes went on to write many additional titles on this topic. She also opened the first family planning clinic in Britain, which both promoted the use of and provided patrons with access to contraception.

Due to the wide success of her first book, Married Love, and because it prompted fans to write to her with questions on the subject, Stopes published Wise Parenthood as a follow-up in November 1918.

Wise Parenthood, with a dark cover and slender appearance, most likely was the book referenced on the January episode of Downton Abbey. The book not only resembles the one Mary held in her hand but its content matches the theme of the episode. Wise Parenthood provides information about different options for birth control, including condoms, withdrawal, and the rhythm method. The book especially  recommends a rubber cervical cap with a quinine pessary, which was a smaller form of the modern diaphragm. In that episode of Downton Abbey, Mary wanted to obtain birth control to use during her liaisons with Tony Foyle, the Viscount Gillingham. While it was never explicitly shown on Downton Abbey, the rubber cervical cap was what likely was in the brown bag Anna brought Lady Mary from the pharmacy, as this was the method of birth control that Stopes most highly recommended in her book.

Last week, Stopes came up yet again.  This time, Anna’s husband, Mr. Bates, confronted his wife with a small cardboard box and the book opened to the title page, clearly showing Married Love. He accused her of trying to avoid bearing a child with him.  We think the producers of Downton Abbey showed the wrong book, because Married Love focused on fertility and planning a family with children, whereas Wise Parenthood explained how to use contraceptive methods as part of family planning.

History & Special Collections for the Sciences, the unit of UCLA Library Special Collections at the Louise M. Darling Biomedical Library, holds an extensive collection of works by Marie Stopes, which were purchased from bookseller C.C. Kohler in 1997. The collection contains many different editions of her works as well as titles by Stopes that have been published in a variety of languages. Stopes was a prolific writer on the topic of contraception, but she also wrote on other subjects and published several plays and books of poetry. Volumes from the Marie Stopes collection are available for use in our reading room.

The two-case exhibit about Marie Stopes and Downton Abbey is the second in a series of Winter quarter projects by LSC graduate student intern Hilary McCreery. It will be on view throughout February.


Biomedical Library (Louise M. Darling)