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Downton’s Missing Jews

The hit period-specific PBS drama glosses over a crucial detail of 1920s England: anti-Semitism

Rachel Shukert
January 11, 2013
Elizabeth McGovern as Lady Grantham and Hugh Bonneville as Lord Grantham on Downton Abbey.(Nick Briggs, Courtesy of © Carnival Film & Television Limited 2012 for MASTERPIECE)
Elizabeth McGovern as Lady Grantham and Hugh Bonneville as Lord Grantham on Downton Abbey.(Nick Briggs, Courtesy of © Carnival Film & Television Limited 2012 for MASTERPIECE)

Happy New Year! Do you watch Downton Abbey? Of course you do; you’re an English-speaking human being with access to machinery. (Ask a stupid question, you get a stupid answer, especially if you have to provide it yourself.)

But you’re also—if our demographic research is anything like accurate—an English-speaking human being with more than a glancing familiarity with the laws of Moses and Israel, which means that when you first found out that the maiden name of Cora, the august and current Lady Grantham, was the very, shall we say, un-English Levinson, you may have done a little mental hora of joy. Of course, every Jewish-American woman is a princess, or so we’ve been told—but a countess? In the bizarre prism of the hereditary aristocracy, where the more minor the title the fancier it seems, that’s really quite something. We’ve arrived.

And then came the news that Season 3, long-awaited on these shores by the computer illiterate and law-abiding, would feature an appearance by Mrs. Levinson herself—played by none other than Shirley MacLaine—and you had to quickly think of a genteel upstairs euphemism for what you thought you might do to yourself in your excitement. Sure, she’s not exactly Bette Midler (who is old enough to be Elizabeth McGovern’s mother in cat years, which is how casting agents figure your age range if you are female), but she’s been kicking around Hollywood long enough to know her way around a Yiddish curse or two and might have been the Vilna Gaon in a past life.

But if you started fantasizing about Seder at Waddesdon Manor with the Rothschilds or, say, the deliciously glacial retort of Lady Mary to some Unity Mitford-esque baby fascist, I’m afraid you’re going to be disappointed. (I’m one of the illegal downloaders Hugh Bonneville hates, and I know.) From the moment MacLaine’s hennaed and befeathered head peeks out from the door of her Rolls Royce Phantom, the J-word is never mentioned, never alluded to, never even euphemized (that is, unless you count “American”). The silence is not only glaringly anachronistic on a program so obsessed with accurate period details, if not accuracy itself. (This is Downton, after all, where the wrong class of person moving a tea tray can inspire a sudden recovery from total paraplegia.) It’s also a major loss of dramatic opportunity on a show that, having served us up one of the most dramatically inert representations of worldwide conflict—the Great War only killed characters that were dispensable, and everyone was able to make it home from the front for important black-tie events—can’t afford to miss many more.

At the least, it would have explained a couple of things: why the Crawleys seem always to be shut up in Yorkshire, away from any semblance of society; why three daughters of such illustrious name seem to have such relatively dismal marital prospects. Might it be due to the presence of a genuine Levite in the family tree? It certainly seems plausible, given that Aristocratic Britain in the teens and twenties was not exactly a place of enlightened toleration to those who were different. But Downton’s writers have imposed what amounts tototal omertà on the matter of Cora’s ancestry.

Compare this silence to the scene from its beloved predecessor, the original—and far superior—Upstairs Downstairs, in which the presence of a genial financier named Max Weinberg at a hunting party is enough to send the assembled toffs into a seething, clench-jawed tizzy. It’s a small masterpiece of racial tension and class anxiety that is at least as interesting as a six-minute scene in which Carson the butler illuminates for us the proper function of a bouillon spoon. With every jab at Weinberg’s clothes, guns, and shooting ability—not to mention their perturbation at his cheery refusal to be visibly wounded by same—we know exactly what kind of world we’re in, and exactly what kind of people we’re dealing with.

But for Julian Fellowes, Downton’s creator and self-styled member of the “lower gentry” (this descriptor, presumably, meant as a charming stab at self-deprecation), this exclusion may be precisely the point. For all Downton Abbey’s soapy appeal, it is best understood as a kind of splashy apologia for feudalism, a paean to the concept of Divine Right. The upper class is rich and powerful because it deserves to be, being inherently superior in word, thought, and deed; and the humble downstairs folk are worshipfully grateful to brush their hair and polish their cuff links and receive cataract surgery so they can continue to spend their retirement years toiling in their kitchens. (The occasional troublemaker like Branson, who thinks himself an equal to the daughter of the house and that the Black and Tans were somewhat more sinister than a bunch of frat boys on a night that got out of hand, can be eased into submission with a suit of evening clothes and a silver salver of scrambled eggs. In the immortal words of Miranda Priestly: “Everyone wants to be us.”) To go too much in depth into how the vast majority of Lord Grantham’s peers—who even in the 1920s were beginning to coalesce into groups that would eventually become the appeasers, the Right Club, and the British Order of Fascists—might have felt about his wife’s father might make for good television, but it certainly might be a little, well, unflattering. Historical accuracy/dramatic tension vs. the rectitude of the ancient class system? In the Fellowes’ Weltanschauung, it’s really no contest.

Yet, ironically, the decision to make Cora a Levinson, as opposed to a Smith, or a Jones, or—what the hell—an Astor, may have given the aristocratic game away more than Fellowes himself may be aware. As a character, Cora is a bit of a cipher: supportive, concerned, always—as the great Anthony Lane said of another famous TV Jew, Sex and the City’s Harry Goldenblatt, “smiling sweetly at something known only to herself.” Her one immutable character trait is that she is very, very rich; it was the Levinson fortune, after all, that saved Downton in the first place. And whatever one might say about those people, one has to admit they’re awfully clever with money. Hasn’t one?


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Rachel Shukert, a Tablet Magazine columnist on pop culture, is the author of the memoirs Have You No Shame? and Everything Is Going To Be Great. Starstruck, the first in a series of three novels, is new from Random House. Her Twitter feed is @rachelshukert.

Rachel Shukert is the author of the memoirs Have You No Shame? and Everything Is Going To Be Great,and the novel Starstruck. She is the creator of the Netflix show The Baby-Sitters Club, and a writer on such series as GLOW and Supergirl. Her Twitter feed is @rachelshukert.