A Place in the Present Where History Meets Fiction

Here's to You, Mrs. Levinson

January 7, 2013

Tags: Downton Abbey, Shirley MacLaine, Edwardian, Lord Crawley, Maggie Smith

"Downton Abbey" is back.
This is good news. Things did seem a bit soapier in the first two hours of the new season. And they sure threw a lot of plot at us. But in the next few months of Sundays, we can look forward to more doomed love affairs, more worlds colliding amidst Edwardian splendor, more personal drama driven by the relentless turn of historyís wheel, more crises large and small, upstairs and downstairs, more great lines for Maggie Smith.
And this season, Maggie may have a dramatic foil who proves to be her scene-stealing equal: Shirley MacClaine, in the role of the American grandmother.
For those of you who have not seen the series, Shirleyís daughter (Elizabeth McGovern) is married to Lord Crawley, ancestral lord of the manor. Itís a strong and resilient union, a good grafting of New World money and American genes to the ancient root of English aristocracy. And in this first episode, Shirley arrives for the marriage of her snobbish granddaughter to a most noble young man.
But from the moment she steps out of her car, we know that something new and different has arrived on the scene. She's crass, outspoken, opinionated, and amused as hell by all the stiff-upper-lipping at Downton. In short, she's the perfect caricature of the British aristocrat'sís nightmare of the rich American. She has no use for all the surface calm, the caste consciousness, the obsession with doing things just so. Sheís an iconoclast. And that makes her a great character, a fresh breeze of personality blowing through the airless drawing rooms that these characters often inhabit. I like her.
But there's one problem. Her name is Levinson. And Levinson is a Jewish name in the way that OíHara is Irish or Sanchez is Spanish. It just is. So Mrs. Levinson and her daughter and granddaughters are Jewish, a fact that demands more a lot more narrative attention than it has ever gotten in this story.
When I am naming characters, I give careful thought to what a name may imply, to how it will resonate in a readerís mind, to how it sounds in the readerís ear, to what it may suggest about the characterís personality (Scrooge, for example, could have no better name), and to what it implies about the characterís ethnicity.
If I name a character Smith and set him down in England, Iím saying his ethnicity doesnít matter much to the story. Then I can get on with things. Ditto a Shaughnessy in Galway or a Cohen on the Lower East Side. But in a drama that is all about the manners, mores, and prejudices of the English upper class (and their downstairs counterparts), you donít give a major character a Jewish name and just leave it at that, especially when she has arrived for the wedding of her granddaughter, to be performed by a Bishop in the Church of England.
That in itself could be the basis for a whole novel.
Itís a simple truth in storytelling that some facts require special narrative explanation. If youíre not prepared to provide it, you must change the facts. You can do it. Itís your story. And any writer would be a fool not to recognize that in the first decades of the twentieth century, an intermarriage of English aristocracy and American Jewish nouveaux riches would have been a collision of words that was positively seismic.
Now, maybe I missed the episode that got into all this. Maybe Shirley MacLaine and her offspring are actually descended from some branch of the Levinson clan that went gentile generations backs. But if you give your character a name that derives from the Levite tribe of Hebrew priests and put that character into a world that would, at best, be quietly intolerant of anyone with a Jewish surname, you must make the intolerance part of the drama. Otherwise, just change Mrs. Levinsonís name to Mrs. Smith and get on with things.
They havenít yet on "Downton Abbey." Theyíre still working their way through their intolerance of the Irish. Weíll see if Mrs. Levinson gets her due later. I'll be watching. What about you?


  1. January 7, 2013 10:32 PM EST
    You hit that nail on the head.
    - Barbara Alfond
  2. January 8, 2013 8:16 AM EST
    Bill--I went to a reading by Jessica Fellowes, who writes the Downton follow-up books. I asked her, in advance of the season opener, if there was going to be a new plot line, that if Cora's mother was Mrs. Levinson, did that mean that Cora Jewish--no small matter in its day (and possibly still)? She brushed it off; said it was the name of husband no. 2--suggesting that there would be at least a brief exchange of dialogue about that. But so far, no. You are right on the money here.
    - Elinor Lipman
  3. January 8, 2013 9:09 AM EST
    Very interesting, Elinor. That means they haven't really thought it through. As I asked on FB, have none of these writer seen CHARIOTS OF FIRE? Anti-Semitism in Edwardian England, especially amng the uper classes, would have been the rule and not the exception.
    - William Martin
  4. January 9, 2013 2:05 AM EST
    There is an excellent film The Shooting Party based on the novel by Isabel Colgate which addresses Edwardian anti-Semitism directly as one of the guests is a Jewish financier,tolerated because of his vast wealth but subject to denigrating asides between the rest of the guests(the baronet played by the late great James Mason refers to him as the Israelite). I wish the writing for Downton was as good as the screenplay of this film.Less sensational than DA,it is a better depiction of the demise of Edwardian aristocracy.Definitely worth a watch.
    - Patricia Saffell
  5. January 9, 2013 6:51 AM EST
    I'll have to see The Shooting Party. Thanks,Patricia.
    - William Martin
  6. January 11, 2013 7:36 AM EST
    I also found the name to be very odd. I am not a fan of Lady Mary. I don't see her as someone who would take being half Jewish lightly. In my mind this "wrinkle" doesn't quite fit or at least needs to be explained. And of course we all know where the world is heading even if they don't.
    - Kathleen Ferrari
  7. January 11, 2013 8:05 AM EST
    Well said. And we sure do know where the world is heading. But I doubt that this series will last long enough to confront the rise of the Nazis. Although a subplot in which a relative from the German aristocracy comes to Downton could introduce the whole issue. They were all related, don't forget; in WWI, the King, the Kaiser, and the Czar were all FIRST cousins.
    - William Martin