For the most part, I have done these linearly, but this one is gonna be on a theme.
In S2E1, the rollercoaster that it is, sees John from giving into his dreams, to then having to push Anna away again, thanks to Vera.
As he breaks things off with her, Anna says “I’d live in sin with you” and clearly states that she’ll sacrifice her reputation to be with him. In S2E6, she also says, “We are going to be together whether [Vera] wants it or not. If we have to leave here, if we have to leave the country, we are going to be together.”
However, there’s a line in the S2E3 pub scene that I feel makes some of the aforementioned lines forgotten, and putting a different spin than I think was intended: “It’s not against the law to take a mistress, Mr. Bates.”
Perhaps the line was delivered maybe more coyly that necessary, as what Anna is really pointing out is that if a man can take a mistress, than we can live together in sin. Fellowes says in the S2 script book:
“I hope we understand that for a completely respectable young woman to offer to become someone’s mistress and live in sin was an enormous thing, an enormous gift. Equally, it’s something that Bates cannot accept, because he knows that’s not who she is, and he loves her. For Anna to be happy, he has to marry her - a morality we no longer subscribe to as a society” (pg. 172).
I think that many people conjured up a different version of the word ‘mistress’ than Fellowes, with clandestine meetings in hotels, a secret life, etc. The sex aspect of it. But here, Anna’s idea was running away together and playing house. This “living in sin.” Not just meeting up at places to have sex and then return to the abbey. She’s not suggesting that they just throw sex into their lives, but rather moving somewhere far from Downton, starting their lives over, and pretending they are married. Of course, making love is part of that. I think it’s important to remember though, that Anna wasn’t offering sex. She was offering everything. Her commitment means a lot more. It’s not just a quick shag behind the rubbish bins. She’s pledging her life, not just her body.
Likewise, John’s not trying to stifle Anna’s sexuality or anything, an interpretation of the scene I’ve also seen. When he talks about the ‘right path’, he is referring to the fact that she’d not legally be his wife, be his next of kin (which is something that is very important to her come S2E8). Their children would be illegitimate in the eyes of the law. If Vera still were to kill herself, then Anna wouldn’t have been kept informed, and she wouldn’t have received the money that John (re)inherited upon Vera’s death. Or if anything else was to happen, etc. Anna does definitely want to be married, but because she loves John so much, she is willing to sacrifice that to be with him. But he does not want her to have to do that.
Anna is also supposedly (I say supposedly because that’s really not that much canon evidence outside of S2E5) religious, so it really is a tremendous sacrifice. It would also be of her reputation, but that she really doesn’t care about. Ultimately, she would prefer to go the moral route, though. And in the end, they did.
And as a general thought that I’ll tack onto here: even though we get all the cute and funny lines about them being racy and frisky throughout the rest of the show, it’s very important not to reduce their relationship to being physical. Especially in light of S4. Their love and devotion is so deep for each other that it’s that the physicality is an expression of that emotion.