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A Place in the Present Where History Meets Fiction

Here's to You, Mrs. Levinson

"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 history’s 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, Shirley’s daughter (Elizabeth McGovern) is married to Lord Crawley, ancestral lord of the manor. It’s 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's’s nightmare of the rich American. She has no use for all the surface calm, the caste consciousness, the obsession with doing things just so. She’s 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 O’Hara 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 reader’s mind, to how it sounds in the reader’s ear, to what it may suggest about the character’s personality (Scrooge, for example, could have no better name), and to what it implies about the character’s ethnicity.
If I name a character Smith and set him down in England, I’m saying his ethnicity doesn’t 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 don’t 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.
It’s a simple truth in storytelling that some facts require special narrative explanation. If you’re not prepared to provide it, you must change the facts. You can do it. It’s 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. Levinson’s name to Mrs. Smith and get on with things.
They haven’t yet on "Downton Abbey." They’re still working their way through their intolerance of the Irish. We’ll see if Mrs. Levinson gets her due later. I'll be watching. What about you?
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