Atticus with Lord and Lady Sinderby. Credit: Nick Briggs/Carnival Film & Television Limited 2014 for MASTERPIECE
For five seasons, Downton Abbey has hooked viewers with its irresistible plots laden with love, lust, secret liaisons, betrayals, tragic deaths and even darker stories about rape and murder. The PBS Masterpiece series has given us a glimpse into the world of an aristocratic British family and their household staff, and used these haves and have-nots to explore themes of class divide, inheritance, changing attitudes and tradition versus progress early in the 20th Century. The subject of politics has always been front and center, but religion has not—until now.
As long time viewers know, the Abbey’s Lord and Lady Grantham, Robert and Cora Crawley (Hugh Bonneville and Elizabeth McGovern), are an interfaith couple: She is Jewish on her father’s side (meaning not that she was necessarily raised Jewish, but that she has Jewish ancestry). Though the fact that Cora is American always mattered more to her upper crust British in-laws than the fact that she was from an interfaith family and Judaism rarely came into the storyline. But in this season’s fifth episode, creator Julian Fellowes introduces a Jewish love interest of Russian heritage, Ephraim Atticus Aldrige (Matt Barber), for Lady Rose (Lily James), and their relationship quickly meets with parental resistance on both sides. (Learn more here about the history of Jews immigrating to England.)
The entire series aired in the U.K. last year, and “it was generally well received,” says creator Julian Fellowes, who received a personal thank you from a Jewish peer in the House of Lords for truthfully portraying what it’s like to be a Jew in British society. Even though the series is set 90 years ago, themes of anti-Semitism, unfortunately, still resonate today, “when such feelings are on the rise in Europe,” he notes.
Fellowes, who is not Jewish, has had a particular interest in the subject of anti-Semitism in the British upper class, from a historical perspective and a personal one. He saw it in his own father, and experienced it firsthand when the father of his first girlfriend objected to their relationship. “She came from a very prominent Jewish family, and they very definitely did not want her to marry out of the faith, and so they did everything they could to discourage the match,” remembers Fellowes, noting that the after the girl married someone else, he and her family “became good friends.” But his experience as an unsuitable suitor proved to be good fodder for thought about prejudice, and he was eager to make that point in Downton Abbey.
Atticus & Rose. Credit: Nick Briggs/Carnival Film & Television Limited 2014 for MASTERPIECE
In episode eight, which airs today, February 22, in the name of preventing her daughter from becoming “an outcast,” Rose’s mother Lady Flintshire (Phoebe Nicholls) tries to break the couple up with a scandalous scheme: She hires a hooker to go to Atticus’ room during his bachelor party and sends the photographic evidence to Rose. But Rose’s father Lord Flintshire (Peter Egan), a.k.a. “Shrimpy,” figures it out and threatens to expose his soon-to-be ex-wife with exposure to Rose if she does anything else to stop the wedding.
But this is not the only obstacle to the young couple’s interfaith union.
Atticus’ father, Lord Sinderby (James Faulkner), doesn’t want his son to marry outside the Jewish faith or produce offspring who aren’t Jewish as much as Rose’s mother doesn’t want her marrying into it. This conversation feels all too familiar to us. Lord Sinderby starts by telling his son, “Our family has achieved a great deal since we came to this country. Not just for ourselves, for our people. We have a proud history and we’ve taken our place among the leaders of this land. And now you want to throw all that away for this little shiksa!”
Atticus replies, “Don’t call her that!”
Lord Sinderby: “I’m sorry. I don’t mean to insult the girl, she seems decent enough. But she is English. An Anglican. And so will her children be.”
Atticus: “She’s Scottish!”
Lord Sinderby: “British then. The second Lord Sinderby may be Jewish but the third will not. And soon our family will be one more British dynasty with all the same prejudices as everyone else…”
Atticus: “Any children we may have will be brought up to know both sides of their heritage.”
Lord Sinderby: “Your children will NOT be Jewish! Don’t you understand that? Their mother will not be Jewish and neither will they.”
Atticus: “They may choose to convert. Or are you implacably opposed to giving anyone a free choice?”
Lord Sinderby: “How easy you make it sound. How little you have had to fight.”
With a little help from Atticus’ understanding mother and Rose’s kind-hearted father, the couple marries, though it’s in a civil ceremony rather than in a synagogue where Rose, with best intentions, suggests the wedding take place. Atticus’ father puts her in her place: “Well, you don’t understand our customs. Then again, why should you.” He refers to the fact that a rabbi would not have officiated an interfaith wedding at this time. (At least this has changed! Check out our Jewish Clergy Officiation Referral Service.) And in the ninth episode season finale, they return from their honeymoon in Italy.
What struck us the most about the portrayal of Atticus and Rose’s relationship was how the whole situation felt very current. Many interfaith couples and families will relate to the range of reactions of their family members. One moment that was especially on point was when Rose explained to her cousins, “It’s not that [Atticus’ mother] thinks that [religion] is unimportant, it’s just that she thinks her son’s happiness is more important.”
Whether interfaith issues will continue to figure in the plot in the series’ sixth and final year, to premiere next January on PBS, Fellowes won’t say, but its newest interfaith couple will likely be a part of it. “I think we will see Rose and Atticus again,” he assures.
A few more potent lines from Episode Eight that we couldn’t help sharing:
Rose’s mother talking about the Sinderbys: “Doesn’t seem right that THEY should be the ones objecting.”
Rose’s mother upon being introduced to Atticus, “What a peculiar name?”
Rose’s mother on the Sinderbys’ background: “I always think of you as nomads, drifting around the world.”
Violet’s reaction to Atticus saying that his father disapproves of stag parties: “Is it a long list, Lord Sinderby, of things you disapprove of?”