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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Friday, February 27, 2015

Downton Abbey’s Lord Sinderby as Sidonia, the most Rothschildian man in the world….of Disraeli’s Coningsby!

Now that I’ve been finding more and more veiled literary and historical allusions in Downton Abbey, I’m paying attention to every unusual character name, waiting for another one to pop up—and one just did, in Season 5’s Episode 8 that aired last Sunday in the U.S.. My Subject Line gives it away---here is the dialog from Episode 8, in which Susan, Rose’s anti-Semitic mother, attempts to insult her future in-laws during a dinner for Atticus and his parents at Downton Abbey:

Cora: Do come in. How lovely to see you.
Rose: Daddy, Mummy. This is Atticus.
Susan: How do you do? What a peculiar name.
Robert: What made you choose Yorkshire? Was it a historic reason? Not really.
Lady Sinderby: I used to go there as a girl and of course it's beautiful.
Susan: Do you have any English blood?
Lord Sinderby: We only date from the 1850s, but Lady Sinderby's family arrived in the reign of King Richard III.
Susan: Really? I think of you as nomads, drifting around the world.
Violet: Talking of drifting round, is it true you're starting your honeymoon at the Melfords' in CONINGSBY?
Atticus: Lady Melford is Mother's cousin.
Violet: Is she? I never knew that.

And then after the dinner we watch the tense tete-a-tete between Rose’s parents, as he gives her what-for:
Shrimpie: Did you enjoy this evening?
Susan: Not really, no. In fact, I hated it. Having to play act in front of those people is so degrading.
Shrimpie: It's not for much longer.
Susan:  Did you know that Anne Melford was Jewish?
Shrimpie: I neither knew nor didn't know. What difference does it make?
Susan: No need to parade your pseudo-tolerance here. We are quite alone.
Shrimpie: I don't feel as you do about it.
Susan: Or about anything else.
Shrimpie: Either way I want no more of your tricks. Is that clear?

The name “Coningsby” rings few bells in 2015, but it would definitely have meant something to Shrimpie, Violet, Robert,  Carson, Molesley, Tom, and Miss Bunting, among other characters in the show.  It was the title of one of the most well known of the many novels written by Benjamin Disraeli, who of course is famous even today for having been the Prime Minister of Great Britain twice between 1868 and 1880.

And what tells us that this was not just a coincidence, because Coningsby sounds like such a good name for an English estate, is that Disraeli created in Coningsby a character, SIDONIA (sounds a LOT like SINDERBY), who was in part inspired by the real life Baron de Rothschild, but who was also a mouthpiece for many of the 38-year old Disraeli’s own ideas, in 1842, about Jewish emancipation, superiority, and the pivotal role of Jews in the ancient and modern worlds.

So, when Violet politely changes the subject from Susan’s crude anti-Semitic nastiness, and asks Atticus whether he plans to honeymoon at Coningsby, this is Julian Fellowes invoking the rich subtext of Disraeli, both as great Tory politician of a vanished Victorian Era and as staunch defender of the right of Jews to sit at the great dinner tables—and to marry the daughters of—the great Christian families of England!

And my joking Subject Line about Sidonia being “the most Rothschildian man in the world” is based on what every reader of Disraeli’s novel would discern in a second, which is that Sidonia is almost a superman among men—he has so many talents and insights, and his presence is so utterly desirable at any social function he deigns to grace therewith, that he may as well be the guy in the Dos Equis Beer commercials!

But the mention of horses and impossibly attractive men is not accidental on my part, as the following comments virtually leapt off the screen during my followup reading of a 1979 scholarly article by Robert O’Kell about, inter alia, Sidonia in Disraeli’s Coningsby:

“…some critics would argue that the extravagant characterization of Sidonia is satirical. But it seems as much mistaken to judge the absurdity of his accomplishments by the test of verisimilitude as to restrict oneself to a literal definition of autobiography. It is clear that the two-fold essence of Sidonia's character, in both respects contrasting sharply with that of Coningsby [the young Gentile protagonist whom Sidonia helps at the end of the novel, VERY much like what Colonel Brandon does for Edward Ferrars at the end of Sense & Sensibility- so very like that I believe Disraeli was nodding to Jane Austen in that motif],  is that [Sidonia] is an outsider and that he is powerful. Consequently, he should be interpreted as an equally idealized counterassertion. Perhaps the conclusive proof of this ambivalence is the allegorical steeplechase in Book IV, Ch. 14, where Coningsby, mounted on the best of his grandfather's stud, aptly called "Sir Robert," comes in second behind Sidonia on his gorgeous Arab "of pure race," again symbolically named "The Daughter of the Star" (Bk. III, Ch. 1 & Bk. IV, Ch. 14). …”

So…the horse race that we watched only two weeks earlier in Episode 6, in which Atticus competes while his parents watch, is, we now see, a very sly wink by Fellowes at the steeplechase race in Coningsby , and is every bit as allegorical as to the characters in DT as it was in Disraeli’s novel!  And you gotta LOL at a horse named “Sir ROBERT’ being the stud whom Coningsby rides, which comes in second to Sidonia’s “pure race” Arab!—especially when we note that Lord Sinderby, like Disraeli’s Sidonia, is even more concerned about preserving the purity of the Jewish genes than Rose’s mother!

I conclude with the invitation to consider the broader implications of Fellowes’s bravura veiled allusion to Disrael and his fictional creature Sidonia---does it suggest that in Season Six of DT, in some way as yet unforeseeable, the Sinderbys will save Downton Abbey, the way Sidonia boasts to Coningsby about his coming to the financial rescue of the British government’s creditworthiness? 

One thing is absolutely for sure--you don’t have to be Jewish to like—no, LOVE--- Fellowes’s seamless blend of erudition and entertainment.

Shabbat shalom,
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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