A Surplus Woman
Have you recovered from season three, episode two of Downton Abbey yet? We still feel a little awkward when we consider Edith’s brazen lines from episode one—Sir Anthony Strallan almost family, indeed. But why would she be so forward? As Tara Austen Weaver writes, Edith’s comment that all the eligible young men had come home dead after the war turns out not to be melodrama, after all.
Oh Edith, poor Edith. I think we forgave her that Kemal Pamuk betrayal when Sir Anthony left her at the altar (how could you, Strallan? How could you?). As Anna says, “How will she find the strength to hold up her head?”
How indeed, and what are her options? The war took three-quarters of a million British soldiers and left an entire generation without enough husbands to go around. As Edith tells her father, “Almost every young man we grew up with is dead. Do you want me to spend my life alone?”
The situation truly was bleak. In 1917 the headmistress of a high school for girls in southern England told her students, “Only one out of ten of you can ever marry … Nearly all the men who might have married you have been killed. You will have to make your way in the world as best you can.”
This generation was called The Surplus Women—nearly two million who would go unmarried. Some were encouraged to emigrate in search of husbands (the colonies were said to be filled with single men); others endeavored to find useful work, though jobs filled by women during the war had since been given back to men. In clubs they danced with other women, some settled down with female companions, others wrote mournful poetry decrying their lot.
But some of these women blazed a trail. From this generation came the first female Justice of the Peace, Liverpool’s first female mayor, and a female curator for the London Zoo. Some say this generation paved the way for future radical feminists.
Will it be radical feminism for Edith (although we suspect Lord Grantham would prefer only one radical in the family), or a journey overseas in search of a cowboy? Action is clearly called for. As her grandmother bluntly tells her, “Stop whining and find something to do!”
Read more about The Surplus Women in Virginia Nicholson’s book, Singled Out: How Two Million Women Survived Without Men after the First World War.