Watching Downton Abbey with an Historian: Differences Without Distinction -The Toast

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Previous installments can be found here. There will be spoilers. “An historian” is a perfectly acceptable Commonwealth convention, haters to the left [side of the road].

Lady Rose, blonde, pink, and charming, is the embodiment of the “English rose” ideal. In Sybil’s absence, she’s also become Downton’s main force of multiculturalism. Last season, she enjoyed a flirtation with Jack Ross, the black American jazz singer. But that relationship was a leap too far, apparently. This season, she’s linked instead with a wealthy, fair, handsome Englishman endowed with only one vector of difference: he’s Jewish.

Atticus Aldridge’s family came to England from Russia in the mid-nineteenth century, fleeing waves of pogroms there against Jews. They joined a religious community with a long history in England. In 1290, Edward I expelled the Jews of England, a group which had dwindled to about two thousand in the face of rising persecution. At the urging of radical Puritans who believed that the conversion of Jews was linked to ultimate redemption, Jews were allowed to resettle in England beginning in 1656.

By the middle of the eighteenth century, about seven to eight thousand Jews lived in England, mainly London; they were largely descendants of Ashkenazi immigrants from elsewhere in Europe. They worked mainly as traders, peddlers, and shopkeepers. Historian Todd Endelman offers an evocative catalogue of the wares associated with them: “oranges and lemons, spectacles, costume jewelry, sponges, dried rhubarb, lead pencils, inexpensive framed pictures” in London, and in the countryside, “shoe buckles, watches, watch chains, rings, snuff boxes, crystal buttons, shirt buckles.” Charles Dickens twisted this context to draw the anti-Semitic portrait of Fagin, the fence and pick-pocket chief of Oliver Twist (1838).

Benjamin Disraeli Benjamin Disraeli

Yet the nineteenth century saw the transformation of the English Jewish population, which became increasingly middle-class and socially respectable. Some successful families converted in order to continue their social ascent. Benjamin Disraeli is the most famous example: after a dispute with his synagogue, Disraeli’s father left the faith, and Benjamin himself converted to Anglicanism at twelve. He went on, of course, to become Queen Victoria’s favorite prime minister, the architect of the modern Conservative Party, and a prolific novelist. Despite all that, his opponents used stereotypes about Jews against him throughout his career.

Atticus’s family would have fit in well in this bourgeois scene. But they would have been exceptions. In general, the waves of immigration from Russia and Eastern Europe opened a schism in the English Jewish community, between the well-off families who had become fully English and the new migrants, impoverished and, from the point of view of mainstream England, doubly foreign. The arrival of 120,000 to 150,000 Eastern European Jews between 1881 and 1914 utterly changed the demographics the English Jewish community, sparking new patterns of anti-Semitism and xenophobia as well as new restrictions on immigration.

Lord and Lady Sinderby, Atticus’s parents, are prominent, wealthy, and well-connected, both within the Jewish community and beyond it. Yet as they make clear to Lord Grantham, prejudice still comes as no surprise. In interwar England, Jews faced membership bans at golf, tennis, and motor clubs as well as overt discrimination by restaurants, hotels, schools, and employers. Offensive stock characters populate the literature of the period: there’s hardly a Dorothy Sayers novel without a walk-on greedy Jewish moneylender. When Leonard Woolf proposed to Virginia Stephens in 1912, she cited his religion as an obstacle, though he was as wholly English as Atticus Aldridge. In 1930, Virginia Woolf remembered her feelings: “How I hated marrying a Jew—how I hated their nasal voices, and their oriental jewellery, and their noses and wattles—what a snob I was.” Rose’s calm acceptance is startling set beside this frank admission of prejudice.

Still, discrimination and hate are never the only relevant contexts. Lord and Lady Sinderby want to expand beyond London and Manchester and establish themselves in the heart of English county life. It’s true that, as usual, the denizens of Downton are amazingly tolerant, eliding the realities of contemporary anti-Semitism. But this is not pure anachronism. Remember that Rose met Atticus while helping non-Jewish, aristocratic Russian refugees from the Bolshevik Revolution, not poor Jewish refugees from pogroms and war. Their link is class; religion is incidental. The Crawleys might well have accepted the Aldridges, leaders of the Jewish community, even while flinching from lower-class Jewish residents of the East end. There is a long tradition, in Britain, of managing diversity through a process of co-optation into the larger structures of hierarchy.

North London synagogue, 1885 North London synagogue, 1885

David Feldman describes this as a tradition of “conservative pluralism.” Far from being radically xenophobic or narrowly homogenizing, the British establishment has, over the last two centuries, consistently placed pluralism at the heart of its legislative approach to minorities. Restrictions on Catholic participation in government were ended in 1829, while Jews were long exempt from bans on working on Sunday as long as they observed their own Sabbath. The second example suggests what’s conservative about this: diversity is acceptable as long as it fits into larger patterns of tradition and deference. In a terrific article, Feldman uses the more recent example of the consistent accommodations made for Sikhs to wear turbans on the job, in spite of union opposition, dress and safety codes, and so on. Why? To a significant degree, in order to support conservative elements within the Sikh community itself, while contributing to a social system based around conservative community leadership of all sorts. Feldman concludes: “In this way the politics of multiculturalism as it is practised in the UK is doubly conservative. It buttresses the position of an otherwise beleaguered Anglican establishment and at the same time it buttresses the position of religious hierarchies and their religious identities within minority communities.”

The appalling behavior of Lord Merton’s sons underscores this point. Larry picks on the family’s “strange in-laws,” citing the Irish Tom Branson as well as Atticus Aldridge, but Isobel Crawley is the real target of his ire. This makes sense for personal reasons, but it’s also consistent with a conservative pluralism willing to tolerate differences of ethnicity and creed as long as they do not undermine the working of the hierarchical order.


Todd M. Endelman, The Jews of Britain, 1656 to 2000 (Berkeley, 2002)

David Feldman, “Why the English Like Turbans: Multicultural Politics in British History,” in Feldman and Lawrence, Structures and Transformations in Modern British History (Cambridge, 2011)

Lara Trubowitz, “Acting like an Alien: ‘Civil’ Antisemitism, the Rhetoricized Jew, and Early Twentieth-Century British Immigration Law,” in Bar-Yosef and Valman, ‘The Jew’ in Late-Victorian and Edwardian Culture Between the East End and East Africa (Houndmills, 2009)

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