Early on in this saga Lord Grantham learns that his nephew, James Crawley, as well as his son whom Lady Mary, his oldest daughter, was slated to marry, went down with the Titanic. This leaves Lord and Lady Grantham in a panic over how the estate can be kept in the immediate family.
The next blow comes when the family learns that Matthew Crawley, an attorney and distant cousin, has been designated to inherit the estate. A bit of snobbery emerges as they along with the Dowager Lady Grantham look down their noses at him. Not because of the kind of work he does, but because he works at all. No member of the aristocracy worked. It just wasn't done.
Aware that Matthew could evict his family from the mansion at some future date if he so chooses, Grantham consults an attorney about finding a way to keep control of the estate. Would going to court produce a ruling that favored the family's interests?
The answer was "No." There were two barriers. One was the law of primogeniture. In To Marry An English Lord, Gail MacColl and Carol Wallace tell us the implications of this law:
Primogeniture meant that the eldest son in a noble family got everything--the land, the houses, the paintings, the jewels, the titles. This way, the title proliferation that afflicted the French and Italian aristocracies was not a problem in England. In France there might be several comtes de Castillane running around at any one time; in England there were only twenty-seven dukes, and a duke had to die before his son could take his place. [P.23]
The second was what is called "the entail," which, the Dowager declared, "must be smashed":
A means of tying up estates in trust so that they were not broken up into ever smaller plots of land but passed whole from one generation to the next. Ruthless, but wise. This system, though hard on the daughters and younger sons who lost by it, gave the English titles and consequently the entire English aristocracy a certain irrevocable cachet. [P.24]
So another way to salvation must be found for this aristocratic family with three daughters and no son. A plot is concocted that requires Lady Mary and Matthew Crawley to fall in love. This has many twists and turns before it is resolved.
Lord and Lady Grantham, ne'e Cora Levinson, are an example of how a social problem on one side of the Atlantic leads to solving a financial problem on the other during the last years of Queen Victoria's reign and those of her son, Bertie, who became King Edward VII after his mother died in 1901. By the time the Grantham daughters are well into their teens, Edward's son had been crowned King George V in 1910. [His death in 1936 would set off the whole abdication imbroglio.]
In the States, beginning in the 1870s, "the Mrs. Astor" had set herself up as a gatekeeper to high society, compiling her famous list of four hundred acceptable families. Granddaughter-in-law of the fur-rich John Jacob Astor, she disapproved of many families, some whose wealth exceeded hers, for various reasons. Since she died in 1908, she was saved from suffering from the loss of her son, John Jacob Astor III, who was a real passenger on the Titanic.
Even though a man had made millions, it didn't mean that his wife could throw a fancy ball and having invited people on Mrs. Astor's list expect them to attend. They wouldn't show up. Given this situation, wealthy young women had been going abroad since the 1870s in increasing numbers to trade daddy's cash for an aristocratic title.
Indeed, we learn that Cora's infusion of money into His Lordship's bank account had saved him from financial ruin. Later, in Season Three, Episode One, Fellowes shows us the reason why Cora Levinson, in particular, had been frozen out of New York society and accepted a proposal of marriage from the Earl of Grantham. Cora's mother, Martha Levinson, played by Shirley MacLaine, arrives at Downton Abbey for the nuptials -- finally! -- of Matthew and Mary. With her outlandish wardrobe, her bluntness, and her insensitivity to Downton's protocol, she is the epitome of the kind of woman who would set Mrs. Astor's teeth on edge. Forget her husband's millions; no one in the infamous Four Hundred was about to give her or her daughter entre'e to their dinners, teas, and balls.
In contrast, British society was more relaxed about hobnobbing with the nouveaux riches. Social climbers from all over the world began arriving in London in the 1870s:
"London's society matrons, unlike their New York counterparts, were not coming unglued at the prospect. Revolutions they worried about; social climbers they could deal with, without needing recourse to McAllister's lists and Patriarchs' Balls. They already had an ancient and noble system for keeping people sorted out, for deciding who, ultimately, was socially acceptable. They had the British peerage." [P.21-2]
Furthermore, everyone knew his or her place in the British class system. Nevertheless, there was a pressing reason why the earls, viscounts, and barons were willing to marry young women who were not members of the peerage.
In addition to the fact that primogeniture made English heiresses scarce as hen's teeth, British aristocrats were going broke.