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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Barrow/Hamlet catches the conscience of Sinderby/Rothschild by bringing his illegitimate child “home” to Downton/Highclere!

My last few posts about Downton Abbey…
...covered the Season 5 Jewish subtext of Downton Abbey surrounding the marriage of heiress Rose Crawley to Atticus Aldridge, heir to Jewish power broker Lord Sinderby.  In those posts, I made a strong case, based on varied evidence, for Julian Fellowes having, in Atticus’s family, cleverly and covertly alluded to TWO generations of one English branch of the great Jewish Rothschild dynasty as follows:

First, by pointing to Benjamin Disraeli’s 1842 novel Coningsby, with its Downtonesque, allegorical steeple-chase horse race and its veiled but compelling portrait of the Jewish contemporary Disraeli admired most, Baron Lionel de Rothschild, in the character of the almost superhuman Sidonia (a loose anagram of Sinderby);
Second, by also pointing to the real life Rothschildian ancestry of Lord Carnavon, the current owner of Highclere Castle, which of course is the real-life setting for Downton Abbey, such ancestry being aptly summarized by The Paris Review as follows:

“Widely believed to be the illegitimate daughter of industrialist Alfred de Rothschild and his French mistress, Marie Wombwell, Almina married George Herbert, the fifth Earl of Carnarvon, in 1895, when she was just nineteen. In Lady Carnarvon’s telling, it was a felicitous match romantically and financially. Dubbed “the Pocket Venus,” diminutive Almina was a renowned beauty, reportedly besotted with her new husband, a budding Egyptologist. More important, perhaps, Almina brought to her marriage the cash desperately needed to run Highclere. Lady Carnarvon’s book focuses on the tumultuous years of World War I, when Almina converted her palatial estate into a convalescent hospital for wounded officers, and ends rather abruptly in 1924, shortly after the Earl’s untimely death. Downton Abbey fans will note the striking parallels between Almina’s life and that of her fictional counterpart, Lady Cora Crawley. This is hardly an accident: Lady Carnarvon and her husband, the eighth Earl of Carnarvon, affectionately known as Geordie, have been friends with Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes for more than a decade. Though Lady Carnarvon calls Fellowes a “genius,” she’s too involved with the show to call herself a fan. “It’s too much of a bloody muddle,” she says.”  END QUOTE

I then noted how neatly Fellowes tied his allusive bow, in that Disraeli’s Baron Lionel de Rothschild was the FATHER of Alfred de Rothschild, and therefore was the grandfather of Almina. And…a final irony: Alfred was born in 1842, the very same year that Disraeli wrote Coningsby!”

And finally I concluded by speculating:  “So is Julian Fellowes “telling” us that Cora is an illegitimate heiress of her family’s fortune?”  Well, now that I’ve seen the final episode of Season 5, I’d be quite surprised if we were to learn in Season 6 that Cora is herself an illegitimate Jewish heiress like Almina was. As my Subject Line suggests, I think we just saw, in this last episode, the payoff of the veiled allusion to Almina Lady Carnavon, when we learned that Lord Sinderby (who, as I’ve argued, represents two successive generations of Rothschild men) fathered an illegitimate son.  Obviously, this closely tracks the above-quoted, widely held belief that the early 20th century Lady Carnavon, Almina, was the illegitimate daughter of Alfred de Rothschild. And note also that the real life Alfred de Rothschild died at age 78 in 1918, and therefore was an older contemporary of the fictional Lord Sinderby.  

Which brings me back to the magnificently Shakespearean Thomas Barrow. How so? Because it occurred to me as I was writing this post that Thomas is, in a deliciously ironic way, a metafictional alter ego to his creator, Julian Fellowes. Just as Iago, Edmund, and Richard III, are all metafictional alter egos to their common creator, Shakespeare, so too does Thomas reflect one side of Fellowes’s artistry.  By this I mean that in both instances, Shakespeare and Fellowes, we have an author who resembles his most Machiavellian characters in taking great delight, and in being very skilled, in manipulating the perceptions of other people. But of course there is one huge difference. A great author deceives his audience for worthy artistic and didactic purposes, but his villains deceive other characters for darker reasons!

And you surely have guessed why I brought up Barrow at this moment. Barrow is the one who contrives, by trickery, to bring Lord Sinderby’s mistress and illegitimate namesake to Downton Abbey, on false pretenses. But is he emulating Iago, Edmund, or Richard III in this action, or (as my Subject Line suggests) is his model in this instance Hamlet? After all, what is enacted when Lord Sinderby’s mistress and illegitimate son show up at Downton Abbey, is strikingly similar to the Mousetrap that Hamlet stages at another castle, Elsinore, in order to “catch the conscience of the King”—i.e., to trigger an involuntary nonverbal reaction which will confirm Claudius’s guilt (for murdering his brother the late King Hamlet) to Hamlet and Horatio.

But whereas the Mousetrap in Hamlet has the unfortunate (and ultimately tragic) effect of provoking Claudius into scheming to do away with Hamlet, in Downton Abbey, we see that Barrow’s Mousetrap has an immediate positive impact. We see Lord Sinderby a deeply chastened, humiliated man, having learned the hard way that (in his own words) people in glass houses ought not to throw stones, and so he will henceforth cease his stubborn, obstructionist hostility to his son’s interfaith marriage. In short, a happy-ending Hamlet, and the decisive and daring Barrow the improbable hero!

And there is one final twist to this bravura ironic comic turn by Fellowes . When Lord Sinderby’s mistress shows up with little Daniel in tow, those who know the Rothschild backstory recognize that the real-life counterpart of little Daniel is Almina, who actually wound up as the mistress of Highclere Castle (a la Cora as mistress of Downton Abbey), and therefore the boy Daniel is, in a metafictional sense, being brought “home” to the actual real life residence where Almina reigned as Lady Carnavon!

And it bears repeating that all of this has flowed from my recognizing, last week, the name “Coningsby”, as the title of Disraeli’s novel, in the following apparently throwaway dialog in the previous episode:

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.

Which all is an object lesson that with many authors, from Shakespeare to Fellowes, it’s always a good idea to pay closer attention to things you never knew, because you may find out a great deal by being curious and suspicious.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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