Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

The World of Downton Abbey by Jessica Fellowes

Downton book 1When I saw a commercial for Downton Abbey, I thought it looked interesting, though I had the name wrong, seeing it as Downtown Abbey, which seemed like it might be about an urban nunnery for fallen women. When the TV listings finally showed it was on, it was towards the end of the first season, so I had to scramble to figure out the stories and characters. But eventually I was able to see every episode several times in repeats and got very caught up in it.
What first drew me was how much Matthew’s features reminded me of a young, light-haired Peter Gabriel, but soon I was attracted to him for his own sake, agreeing with my local paper, which called him “dreamy”. And there was all those other characters, the outrageous things the Dowager Duchess said were amusing, not prejudiced, as they might be in real life. Mrs. Patmore who is really a marshmallow beneath her dragon exterior. The scheming of Thomas and O’Brien, the stalwart Bates and his romance with Anna, not to mention the one between Branson, the Irish chauffeur and Sybil, the youngest daughter of the house. I was appalled at the behavior of the two eldest sisters, and was pleased when they matured a bit and became more self-involved, rather than so nasty with each other. After watching each episode on Sunday nights, I would eagerly look forward to what would happen next time, a wonderful diversion in a cold Ohio winter.
So you can imagine how pleased I was to find there was a book about the show, which not only gave fans a behind-the-scenes peek, but also the history upon which it is based. It’s packed with pictures, not only of the Tv production, but also archival photos, posters, fashion drawings and recipes. Alastair Bruce earned the name of ‘The Oracle’ for his historical expertise, often giving classes to the actors to provide proper behavior and background for their activities. The book shows the extent the producers went to for atmosphere, such as inventing and designing crests and regimental badges for uniforms. Many of the womens’ dresses are vintage, or use fabrics from that era.
But it’s not all about the clothes, (though that’s the main reason my sister watches), the book delves into not only the psychology of the characters, but some of the actual people they are based upon, drawing on diaries and memoirs. Sir Richard Carlisle is modeled on Lord Northcliffe, an English tabloid newspaper magnate at the turn of the 20th century. And Countess Cora’s story is similar to Lady Curzon, the daughter of an American real estate speculator who married the Hon. George Curzon and became Vicerene of India. In the Forward to the volume, Julian Fellowes admits to having a great-aunt who was the inspiration for the Dowager Duchess Violet(can you imagine?).
There’s also a lot of factual information about long gone manners and habits, such as noting that well bred ladies could paint in watercolors, but not oils, “which were considered a little Bohemian.” The duties of the servants are explained, for instance, Daisy(the lowest ranked maid) would’ve been on duty from 4:30 am, (when she started the fires through the house) until 9:45 pm, (when she finished the washing up), making me wonder how anyone could stand the arduous schedule for any amount of time. Some of the techniques they used for cleaning, such as rubbing breadcrumbs on silk slippers, are startling.
My very favorite part of the book was the chapter divisions, spread across 2 pages, an artful collage which looks more like end papers of an antique folio. On the left is sharp focus photo of one or more cast members against a faded photo of the same theme (Society, Family Life, etc.), leading into a wet-into-wet watercolor design in complimentary colors spilling onto the right hand side, beneath the chapter’s name in elegant script. They are quite lovely.
While some write off this series as a fancy soap opera, this companion book shows that it has a serious foundation, incorporating authentic events such as womens’ suffrage, social reforms, modern technologies and WWI. It not only gives us a human connection to these milestones, but proves the changing tide of circumstance affects everyone, no matter where they are on the economic ladder.

St. Martins Press 2011 303 pp. ISBN 978-1-250-00634-9

Jackie has been waiting for months for Season 3 to air on U.S. television and is glad that it’s finally here.

(NB: Could we ask those who have already seen Series Three to avoid comments that reveal plot developments, please? Thank you. VL.)


7 comments on “The World of Downton Abbey by Jessica Fellowes

  1. Moira
    January 11, 2013

    You know, I STILL use breadcrumbs for stain removal from fabric? It doesn’t always work, but if all else fails, it’s worth a try. I inherited that one from my mother, who doubtless inherited it from hers … and my maternal grandmother was a Victorian/Edwardian – so that’s right on period.

    I’m not a fan of Downton myself (they lost me when that dusky furrin bloke expired in Lady Mary’s bed and we were treated to the sight of Mary, Mummy and the Trusted Maid hauling the corpse away – I’m sure I wasn’t supposed to be laughng quite so hysterically) but Julian Fellowes (now Baron Fellowes, I b’lieve) writes a superior soap … and I do admire the frocks. Mind you, I admire Bredan Coyle a lot more. Unfortunately, even HE couldn’t keep me watching …

    Lovely review though, Jackie … and it sounds like a ‘must have’ for Downton fans …

  2. Jackie
    January 11, 2013

    Well, I admit to laughing too when they were carrying the late Mr. Pamuk down the hall, so I wonder if it wasn’t intended to be comical. And Brendan Coyle is attractive, I keep thinking he ought to do a film with Pierce Brosnan, they could be brothers or something.
    I know a lot of those in the UK think of Downton as a soap, but it’s considered quite lofty here in the US. That probably says more about American TV than anything. lol

  3. Hilary
    January 11, 2013

    Lovely review, Jackie. I’m afraid you’ll have to count me another Downton Doubter, thou I watched the first series with right good will, and the second and third with mounting hysteria. I have no idea why I keep watching it – hope over experience, perhaps, maybe one day it will turn out to be as good as it could be.

    One thing seems sure – it sounds as though the book is streets better than the TV series … I may take a look!

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