In UK, aristocrat faces real-life 'Downton Abbey' dilemma

Viscount Timothy Torrington's story reads like a real-life version of "Downton Abbey," the hit period drama about the family of an earl who has no direct heir to inherit his title.

Like the fictional character Lord Grantham, the aristocrat has three daughters but no sons. In order for his title to live on in future generations, the 69-year-old has no choice but to pass it to a distant relative abroad, someone he has not even met.

"It's a sadness in life that my wife and I never had a son," said the viscount, who lives with his wife in the countryside west of London. "But I suppose I would rather someone inherit it than have it dying out."

"Downton Abbey" may be set in the early 20th century and its characters may be fictional, but the effects of a centuries-old rule that puts boys before girls are very real to Torrington and hundreds of hereditary peers in modern Britain. It's still a man's world when it comes to inheritance among Britain's peerage, an archaic system of feudal class and power that first took shape almost a millennium ago around the time of the Norman Conquest.

The titles -- earls, viscounts, barons, marquesses and dukes -- no longer indicate great wealth. But for many they're still a mark of prestige and social status more impressive than anything money can buy.

Julian Fellowes, the creator and writer behind "Downton," knows this only too well: His wife, Emma Kitchener, is a descendant of the first Lord Kitchener, the famous imperial field marshal and statesman. She cannot inherit the storied title, which faces dying out.

Most hereditary peerages are bestowed by royalty and can only be passed to sons not daughters -- based on the rule of "male primogeniture" -- a principle as old as the peerage system itself. If a peer dies with no son, the title will go to a male heir like a cousin or uncle, and if there is no male heir to be found a title could become extinct.

There are exceptions: Some women, like the late Baroness Margaret Thatcher, become "life peers" by the monarch's appointment, not by inheritance. She cannot pass her title on to her offspring. Among about 1,000 titles that can be inherited, only about 90 may descend in the female line.

Torrington's title isn't one of them. His eldest daughter, Hatta Wood, has just had a baby boy -- but he, too, is locked out of inheriting the title because male primogeniture excludes the entire female line of the family tree. The nearest male heir is a distant cousin who lives in Toronto.

"It's unfair to my son," said Wood, 35. "When he was born, it suddenly felt like I could keep (the title) going down the family line ... but it's going to go to somebody else, a guy in Canada."

Wood admits that she values her father's title for its "sentimental value more than anything else." Unlike the Downton ladies, she has her own career in publishing. Most noble titles are now just that -- a form of address, not necessarily tied to fortunes or estates. Some hereditary peers still wield political influence in the House of Lords, but most were kicked out after reforms in 1999.

Still, the tradition of bypassing women just because of their gender jars with current thinking -- especially when even the monarchy is getting rid of sexism in the succession to the throne. That means that if Prince William and Kate have a girl first, she will become queen, and no younger brother will be able to jump the line and get ahead of her.

Those changes have prompted many to ask: Why not take the reforms to the aristocrats as well?

The short answer is that it is much easier said than done. Some conservatives fear change and tinkering with age-old tradition, and many argue that the rules involved are too complicated to reform. The issue also doesn't just concern one family -- as in the royals -- but affects hundreds. And any reform, which would need to be passed by parliament, could potentially sow confusion and resentment over inheritance among existing heirs and their siblings.

Titles can't be split, and splitting a mansion isn't always a good idea either.

"Inheriting a great draughty mansion with obligations is not everybody's idea of fun in 2013. Even worse is to inherit a minority interest in it -- for example, a split between five heirs," said Roderick Balfour, an earl who has four daughters and no son.

Balfour recently wrote to the government to propose a compromise: A title should pass to first-born daughters, but only in cases when there is no son. It's not exactly gender equality, he said, but it would at least present a workable solution to families like his.

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg has said he was "sympathetic" to extending the royal reforms to titles, but the government has indicated it isn't going to act soon to tackle the issue -- not least because few Britons are likely to rally behind moves to preserve the nobility.

James Gray, a campaigner for the anti-monarchy group Republic, concedes that the international success of "Downton Abbey" -- which has won millions of fans in the U.S. and elsewhere -- may signal a widespread fascination with the lives of blue bloods, but that doesn't mean people at home admire or want to emulate a crusty upper class.

He raised another point: Since monarchy and aristocracy are inherently unfair and discriminatory, some may see achieving gender equality in those institutions as redundant.

"I think most people accept that hereditary power is wrong," Gray said. "Noble titles are more of an oddity now -- there's perhaps a fascination, but it's a curiosity rather than something people look up to anymore."