LONDON — Viewers of “Downton Abbey” spotted the family-destroying potential of primogeniture in the first episode, when the Titanic sank and Lord Grantham, father of three daughters, was left with no obvious heir.
Luckily, the distant cousin who emerged as the next in line proved willing to ditch his dreary day job, marry one of the daughters and cleverly produce a son before his own abrupt demise last season.
But what of those poor, no-prospects daughters, forced to look alluring and wait around for suitable husbands?
The practice of primogeniture — in which titles and estates pass only to male heirs, even negligibly related ones excavated from other continents — may seem as outrageous and antediluvian as denying women the vote, but it is still the law of the land for the aristocracy in Britain.
“My father always said, ‘Remember to wear a safety belt, because your face is your fortune,’” said Liza Campbell, daughter of the 25th Thane of Cawdor (yes, there is one in real life, not just in “Macbeth”), and now, after her father’s death, sister of the 26th.
Also known as the Earl of Cawdor, the current thane, Colin, is the middle child among five children. But he is the oldest boy and was always considered the most important, for title-continuity purposes.
“I love my brother, but it’s a peculiar situation,” said Campbell, 53, an artist and writer who grew up on the family’s Scottish estate — 50,000 acres, plus castle — but now lives in London. “There’s one chosen one in the family, and everyone else is superfluous to requirements.”
Until recently there has been little appetite to change the law, a reflection in part of Britain’s inability to decide, finally, whether its aristocracy is an essential part of its identity, a quaint vestige of the past or a bit of both.
“The posh aspect of it blinds people to what is essentially sexism in a privileged minority, where girls are born less than boys,” Campbell said.
The issue has been percolating through Parliament since the recent passage of a law allowing the monarchy to be passed on to the monarch’s firstborn child, regardless of sex (this means that William and Kate’s impending baby will become the third in line to the throne, whether it is a boy or a girl). New legislative proposals would allow peerages — basically, inherited titles and the estates that can come with them — to be passed on this way, too, to the oldest child rather than the oldest son.
“We seem to have not got rid of titles, but I think since we have them, I would like to see them gender-blind,” said the bill’s sponsor in the House of Lords, Lord Lucas of Crudwell and Dingwall, who because of a historical quirk is one of the few hereditary peers whose titles can pass to girls as well as boys.
The House of Commons sponsor, Mary Macleod, a Conservative, pointed out that of 92 hereditary peers in the House of Lords, just two are women. “It only affects a few people, but it’s symbolic,” she said of the proposal. “It’s saying that, right now, do we think that men and women are equal?”
The current rules have created all manner of family trouble.
“When we were growing up, it was always, ‘When your brother lives here. ...’” said an aristocratic woman who grew up on a grand estate she loved, only to have her younger brother inherit it when their father died. The woman, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because she did not want to stir up family grievances, said that no one ever questioned the system.
“Even though my father had witnessed his mother’s near-collapse at not inheriting the house she grew up in, he did not adjust his own behavior towards his daughter,” said the woman, who is now in her late 50s. “Though I loved him and he loved me, the rule of inheritance was as strong for him as the rule that you do not have children out of wedlock.”
She is lucky: Her brother lets her and her children visit the house whenever they want. Some sisters are not so fortunate. The children of the late Lord Lambton, for instance, have been locked in a nasty dispute over his multimillion-pound estate, which when he died in 2006 passed down entirely to his youngest child and only son, Ned.
Three of his five daughters have sued their brother, claiming that since Lord Lambton spent his last decades in his villa in Italy, his estate should be subject to Italian law, which does not have primogeniture. They are asking for $1.5 million apiece. The brother — whose arrival in the family, a much-wanted son after five daughters, was celebrated with an ox-roasting and a bonfire — has countersued in English court.
Interestingly, no one is campaigning to take the matter even further by, say, requiring that estates be divided among all the children and not left to just one. The system here has kept intact for centuries many of Britain’s grandest estates, including Blenheim Palace, home of the Duke of Marlborough; Chatsworth, home of the Duke of Devonshire; and Highclere Castle, home to the Earl of Carnarvon (and to Lord Grantham, in TV world).
In Britain, the Countess of Clancarty and others have started an online petition urging Parliament to enact the proposals and end sex discrimination among hereditary peers. Recently, dozens of people, including peers and wives and daughters of peers, signed a supportive letter in The Telegraph. But many others refused.
“Plenty of people are really worried,” Lady Clancarty said. “They don’t want to sign, because they are so frightened of hurting their families. No one wants to fall out with a brother or upset a father or mother. There’s a code of omertà. We’re saying it’s OK to speak up.”