In late November, we published an exclusive look at The Chronicles of Downton Abbey: A New Era, the latest companion book to “Downton Abbey” that was recently released in America just in time for the holiday season. The book contains both a historical look at Britain circa 1920 (which is the approximate setting for the start of season 3) as well as detailed looks at the characters, their potential hobbies and interests, and even images of the sort of clothing that they would wear. If you are a diehard fan of all things Downton, there’s no better gift out there (even for yourself) in order to prepare for the show returning to PBS on Sunday, January 6. The Foreword is even written by the show creator in Julian Fellowes.
Along with Matthew Sturgis, journalist and writer Jessica Fellowes is the architect behind the book, and thus has invaluable insight into not only the characters and the show, but how these people, fictional as they may be, would have lived in that time. We had an opportunity to chat with her recently via email, and she gave great context as to the writing process, who she relates to the most and least among the characters, and some of the general themes running through the third season. (Do not fret: there are no season 3 spoilers ahead.)
Cartermatt.com – One of the rare treats with a show like ‘Downton’ is that even though so many of the characters are born into a specific class, this still does not define them or impact whether or not they are loved by viewers. What do you think it is about these people that makes them so almost universally appealing to viewers of all ages and class distinctions?
Jessica Fellowes – What I think is clever about Julian’s writing and his characters is that he starts from the fundamental belief that everyone is good, but some get led astray or damaged, which takes them off that path. So there is nothing black and white about anyone in Downton, there are always shades of light and dark. O’Brien is manipulative and on the edge of madness, yet you get glimpses from her now and then to show that her heart is not completely cold. Anna is completely good is so many ways, but she has a backbone of steel that means she will go to almost any lengths to protect those she loves. Even Bates showed signs of a worrying hot temper. Of course, the actors, too, are exemplary in bringing these subtleties to life. It makes them all compelling to watch because we all feel a bit like that ourselves – we are vulnerable but strong-minded; kind but angry when crossed… and so on.
Season 3 starts off in 1920, which was really a transformative time for most developed countries. When profiling some of these characters in the book, do you find it fascinating to look at how some of them (Robert, Mr. Carson) almost refuse to embrace new ideas and ways of life? Why do you think that they and many others in that time are so stubborn to change?
Well, it’s funny, having just come back from a trip to New York, I realised that what I find so refreshing about Americans is their ability to completely embrace change. It’s a very unBritish characteristic. On the whole, the Brits are terrified of change. They like to refer to the past and take their guidance from it. That’s changing, to a degree, although you often find that younger generations want change but as they get older they revert to conventional ways. Robert and Mr Carson would not see themselves as failing to embrace new ideas and ways of life – it’s simply that they think the way it has always been done is a good way, and ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’. Living in their rather narrow world means they cannot see the positive outcomes of change. But it was an extraordinary time then – there was such a huge amount of change going on (social, technical, scientific, medical, political) that it was very hard to keep up with it all. Most of the time, it was just overwhelming. Something simple – electric lights, say – meant not only wiring up a house, but someone to manage the generators, the possibility of them not working, sparks that started fires and that’s before you get on board with the fact that everything was now brightly lit, instead of having the rather pretty candlelit glow…
This may be an often-asked question, but do you find profiling some characters to be easier than others? Are there some you relate to more, or do you find some so complex that they are hard to delve into?
By the time of the second book, The Chronicles of Downton Abbey, I was feeling very comfortable around the characters, and also felt that there was such a lot to say about them – how they were brought to life, their development in the seasons, their real-life counterparts. So profiling them was not harder with any particular one than another. I probably related to the daughters most, as young women who were making their way in the world, albeit in very different ways. I would say Bates was, for me, the hardest to delve into because he’s so opaque and rather consciously so. Sometimes I want to tell him – ‘just tell us how you feel! It’ll be OK!’. But then his very mystery is of course what makes him so interesting to watch.
Did your opinions change about any of these characters while writing about them, especially those either perceived to be villains or at times cold on the show?
Not really because I make no judgement on them that Julian doesn’t give us in some way or another. What I found interesting was realising, on looking back across two and a half series (I had read the scripts up to episode 5 of the third series before writing the book) was how much they had developed and what they had all been through. I definitely felt more pity for O’Brien and something approaching fondness for Thomas by the end. I understood more of how trapped they felt by their world, however many advantages it may at times have appeared to bring them.
What do you think reading The Chronicles of Downton Abbey provides fans looking to accentuate the experience of watching the series?
Hopefully it enriches the viewer’s watching of the series because you understand the many layers that go towards building the show. The book looks at the series itself – we talk about the characters as live and present people; then we look at how they were brought to life, from the scripts to the art departments, hair and make-up, costume etc; there’s my own personal analysis of the characters and their development and finally we look at how their lives would have been lived in the period. We delved to find the details – the movies they might have seen, books they might have read, personal items they would have owned – to give the reader/viewer a real sense of the cultural reference points, concerns and pleasures of their lives. It sets everything in context and you should therefore understand not only the series better, but also have gained a genuine historical insight. And, we promise, no spoilers!
Pretty much everything! It’s always been my main period of interest in history. I think because it’s the start of modern life – while everything is ‘period’, and we understand that life then was lived in different clothes and with a different set of attitudes to the present day, there’s a lot we can find relevant because they are beginning to adapt to new mod-cons and changing views. Plus, those people then were living in a very intense time – from a brutal war, quite unlike anything seen before, to the Jazz Age, to depression and then the onset of another war (I’m particularly fascinated by how those women who lost their brothers/fathers/lovers in the first world war, then had to send their sons to the second – how did they cope with that?). There’s so much to look at and learn.
Do you have any general thoughts or hopes as to where you would like to see the show go? We are obviously spoiled here by American shows whose seasons run between 13-22 episodes that long waits for ‘Downton Abbey’ ratchet up the anticipation to new levels that we are not so much accustomed to.
The second season was set against the backdrop of big world stage events – First World War, Suffragette movement, Spanish flu – and we saw how a house like Downton coped with that. Now it’s the beginning of a new decade, a time when people dared to hope again and yet they had to manage the aftermath of everything that had gone before. It was a time of both great sadness and great vision. We are drawn more closely back to the house and its inhabitants, seeing how they all deal with that. I promise, you’ll find season three well worth the wait!
A massive thanks to Jessica Fellowes for her time and courtesy in speaking with us. If you want to pick up The Chronicles of Downton Abbey, you can do so via Amazon.
Meanwhile, be sure to also catch up on the first two seasons of “Downton Abbey” (or merely just refresh your memory) by checking out the story over here.