Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Downton Abbey, or, How I Learned What All the Fuss was about

The World of Downton Abbey
by Jessica Fellowes
St. Martin's Press, 2011.

*Warning: spoilers follow for the first two seasons of Downton Abbey*

So I don't know about you, but in my library the availability of the DVD of the first season of Downton Abbey meant a flurry of holds and a lot of conversation about the Masterpiece Theatre presentation. I put it on hold to see what all the fuss was about, and the first time I got the DVD I didn't even watch it before I had to return it to the library. Second try was the charm, though, and I not only watched the first season in - ahem - one day, I promptly looked up when the second season was going to be on PBS, and watched that all over the same holiday weekend. I found myself fascinated, loving the picture of a world one hundred years ago, at once familiar (cars, telephones) and strange (servants, social class, World War 1). I picked up some of the class differences and societal tensions, but as an American in the 21st century, I know there's a lot going on that I didn't understand, or just wasn't sure about (how normal would it be, for example, if a young woman had run off and married the chauffeur in that era, for her mother to stay in contact with her and want her to visit?).

That, ultimately, is why I decided to read this book. In all fairness, in a book like this covering everything from family life to style to World War 1 to a servants' life, none of my questions are going to be answered in depth. But, if you enjoyed the show, a little bit of everything is explored through its lens, through what we saw the characters experience, plus giving us more period detail from diaries and books about people who really lived then. I didn't learn the specifics, like my example question above, but there is still a bit more detail here than can be conveyed in an hour long program.

And then there's the photography. Wow! You can really appreciate the attention to detail when looking at photographs of the sets, of the actors, and of Highclere Castle. There are lots of quotes from the actors and the show sprinkled throughout the text and photographs. The final chapter is more a "making of" than the historical background, and it really made me appreciate all the work that went into making Downton Abbey as good as it is.

Finally, the recommended reads at the end (unfortunately for me, since I want to read everything and I have to figure out which books were mentioned more than once) is organized by chapter, so if you are most interested in any one particular aspect of the Downton Abbey world, it's quite easy to follow up on just what you're looking for. Highly recommended to any fan of the show.

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