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Lessons from Downton Abbey: A Jewish American Princess studies the Dowager Countess

I admire the British for so many reasons. They have a rich history of beheading enemies of the monarchy without ever compromising afternoon tea. They colonized half the globe and yet managed to ensure that no other colony’s accent would sound exactly like theirs. In particular, I idolize the Brits for their fictional characters. If shipwrecked on a deserted island and in need of reading materials to last a lifetime, I’d much rather have aristocratic and feisty Emma Woodhouse and her charming Mr. Knightly with me than Puritanical Hester Prynne and her pastor, Arthur (yawn) Dimmsdale. Give me Heathcliff and Catherine! Bring me my Bridget Jones! Oh, heck, just give me any book that was later turned into a movie starring Hugh Grant and/or Colin Firth! And, now, thanks to Downton Abbey, make sure that I always have the BBC on my telly. (Yes, even on that deserted island.)

Turns out, there’s a lot a Jewish girl from New York can learn from the fictional, Victorian-Era Crawleys and their estate in North Yorkshire. In honor of the upcoming finale of Downton Abbey’s second season, I’d like to share some of these delicious bits of knowledge.

1. Marry your cousin. Clock ticking? Desperate for a mate? Tired of being set up by your mom’s gay hairdresser? Sick of having half of your grandmother’s mahjong group insist they have the perfect guy for a “mature” woman like yourself? Dear Jewess, don’t fret. The next time your dad worries about who will take over his condo in Boca once he passes on, ensure him that you’ve got his back. Promptly fall in love with your cousin and gain an immediate heir to the estate. Now, don’t go screwing things up by, let’s say, screwing a Turk who then dies in your bed or by pretending you don’t love your cousin when you really, really do. Don’t let the cousin go off to war on Wall Street without telling him how you feel. Worry later about the genetic complications this might prompt, including blood-clotting disorders; for now, stay focused on Boca.

2. Just shut up already. When people ask me how I am doing, I actually tell them. Sometimes, I go on for several minutes, blabbing and spewing and confiding, analyzing and hypothesizing and then circling back to the original point with some sort of diarrhea of the mouth. What can I say? This is nearly unavoidable when the double helix of your DNA looks like Fran Drescher and Woody Allen snake dancing. An English Lady would never behave like that. She would hold her tongue and smile in mixed company, only divulging her true feelings to her maid. Even if she were bleeding internally during cocktails, I like to think she’d keep concerns about her spleen to herself. Perhaps if I wore a corset, I’d feel less like talking, and therefore, become all the more charming. I’d certainly look better. It’s worth a shot.

3. Use your father’s influence for your own gain. Oh, wait. We Jewish American Princesses have already got this one down. Check it off the list!

Interestingly, gossip about season 3 of Downton Abbey has some suspecting that Cora Crawley, wife of the Earl of Grantham and daughter of American dry goods multimillionaire Isidore Levinson is actually…gasp…Jewish. With a name like Levinson, it’s certainly possible. And it would help to explain the overlapping behaviors between Jewesses and Countesses, at least in this instance.

(Read the full piece on Tablet here.)

4. When and if that doesn’t work, sneak around behind Papa’s back. This is really fun. There is no telling what can be done once dear old Papa is out of the loop. This is how most of my shopping at Bergdorf Goodman was done when I was in high school. Afterwards, I would hide the packages so my dad couldn’t document the trouble my mom and I got into with his Amex. But now I see that this was nothing. When done with the English flair of a Crawley, you can achieve true greatness behind your father’s back. You can fall for your politically-minded chauffer and still have time to dress wounds back at the makeshift convalescent hospital set up in your family’s dining room. You can, with help from your mother and her maid, remove the dead Turk from your bedroom and place him back in his own bedchamber. You can then work a romantic deal with a well-known publisher, exchanging your heart for the safety of your public reputation. Shhh. As long as Papa doesn’t know, then you are not a whore, or a slut, or in fear of being disinherited, disowned, or dishonored. There shall be no dissing whatsoever without Daddy’s knowledge. (Easier by far just to go on a shopping spree, if you ask me.)

5. In a tiered society, it’s best to be at the tippy top or the briny bottom.Honestly, the servants and the Dowager Countess seem to have the most fun in and around Downton. There is much to scheme about when you spend all day mending fancy people’s socks and cleaning their underclothes, which explains why O’Brien and Thomas are so delightfully awful. Same with Maggie Smith’s Dowager Countess, the most influential of the upstairs bunch. Once she properly positions an off-kilter, feathered and flowered hat atop her curls, she’s got nothing to do all day but gossip and connive and dream up the next sharp barb. And that’s the way life should be as the top 1%. It’s not as much fun being stuck somewhere in the middle, like me, and like dear Bates. He’s got some money, but he’s also got a limp and had a wife who was a bitch. No one wants to be him. And then there’s Isobel Crawley, who has so little power next to Lady Grantham that she had to retreat to France for a while. She’s no fun at all.

When all is said and done, in my next life, I’d like to come back as a British Dutchess or Countess or Heiress. Any ess will do. I’d like to have someone dress me for dinner and I’d want to learn how to ride a horse in the countryside without having to worry about my hay fever.

Oh, and one last thing. I’d like to be able to celebrate Christmas, even if it is fictional and during wartime. Lucky for me, that’s exactly what the Crawleys will be doing this Sunday, February 19th. Now, raise your heirloom quality, cut-glass crystal goblet and follow my lead. Cheers, everyone.

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