Downton Abbey, Edith Wharton, and the Jews

Overwhelmed by the cascading changes at Downton Abbey, Maggie Smith's snarky Dowager Countess complained way back in Season One, "Sometimes I feel as if I were living in an H.G. Wells novel." Wells, of course, wrote The War of the Worlds and other science fiction and fantasy novels.

Watching Downton Abbey, I've often found find myself feeling that I'm living in an Edith Wharton novel. More than one, in fact. Wharton's novel The Buccaneers, which was unfinished at her death, was all about young wealthy American woman like Cora who were launched like arrows to hit titled English targets. Born in 1862 to old New York money, Wharton observed this international exchange as America's Gilded Age burst into lavish bloom. Her native city of New York was a frenzy of building, money, and that modern invention we take for granted: publicity, which the family on Downton Abbey has been desperate to avoid.


The series is imbued with the preoccupations of Wharton's fiction. Just like the women in The House of Mirth, the Grantham daughters have had few choices aside from marrying a man, preferably one with money. New money may be suspect, but money is the drumbeat, even when people claim they don't care about it. Acquiring money, and the status and safety it brings, obsesses Lily Bart, the heroine of The House of Mirth, Wharton's 1905 best seller and an American classic the Granthams surely would have read.

Wharton lived in France during World War One, whose impact we're still see in Downton Abbey with the building of the war memorial, and she wrote a powerful novel, A Son at the Front, about the surprisingly high cost of war for those who aren't in the trenches. When war broke out, Wharton worked with astounding energy to aid the French war effort through fund-raising and solving the refugee crisis. But she was more than a combination of Cora and Mrs. Crawley: she visited the front and wrote about it, and her extraordinary efforts earned her the highest civilian honors Belgium and France could bestow.


Wharton challenged convention by being intellectual and an author. But, she was still a product of her class, which frowned on social climbers of all kinds, especially Jews, who symbolized the vast social and financial changes rocking her comfortable world. In The House of Mirth, her sole Jewish character, wealthy Simon Rosedale, is frantic for status and vainly pursues Lily Bart, the faded society flower who finds him repulsive. Wharton relied heavily on stereotypes to create him: he's flamboyant, vulgar, buffoonish, and speaks bad English.

His portrayal is an aggravating flaw in a novel I've read many times and love for Wharton's profound understanding of how shame can crush our hopes -- something that plays out again and again in Downton Abbey. Having written two other books about Wharton, a mystery and a critical study, I decided to do something completely different: tell Rosedale's unknown story. Rosedale in Love is my reply to The House of Mirth, a book that gives Simon Rosedale a soul, a past, a family -- that makes him human, in other words.


Cora's father is Jewish, and we were reminded of that two episodes ago this season, but we'll soon have Downton Abbey's first major character who's a Jew, a banker's son with the improbable name of Atticus Aldridge. Though his parents are wealthy, and he's a hunk, his being Jewish is sure to provoke a mild sensation upstairs and downstairs, some acid remarks from Maggie Smith's character -- and who knows, maybe inspire a novel or too, as well. Some fan fiction at the very least.


Lev Raphael is the author of 25 books, most recently Assault With a Deadly Lie, a novel of suspense about stalking, gun violence, and militarized police forces.