Whether you picture yourself upstairs lounging in the elegant drawing room or downstairs scrubbing vegetables in the kitchen, you can’t help being fascinated by the award winning Masterpiece series, Downton Abbey. This fairytale of life among the British aristocracy enters its fifth season as the most popular drama in the history of the Public Broadcasting Service. With characters, from the footman to the Dowager Countess, draped in exquisite clothes, surrounded by sumptuous furnishings and enclosed in lavish country houses, it’s easy to fall under the spell creator Julian Fellowes has woven. Although, as Americans, we like to think of ourselves as classless and democratic, we secretly revel in the lives of these cultivated, witty and self-assured aristocrats.
Downton Abbey follows the fortunes and misfortunes of the landed and titled Crawley family from the Edwardian era forward. Along the way the series ties in major historical events – the sinking of the Titanic, the First World War, the Spanish influenza pandemic – fashion trends, technology – the telephone, typewriter and radio, as well as social disruption and upheaval – the Suffrage movement, Irish nationalism, the British labor movement and the “Roaring Twenties”. It’s a potent mixture, and has sparked an interest in all things British. According to one source, it’s even created a worldwide demand for English butlers. You probably won’t be adding a butler to your household, but you may be interested in learning more about this period of social history.
The story behind Highclere Castle, the real-life setting for the series, is told in Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey, by The Countess of Carnarvon, current owner of the estate. In1895 the impoverished 6th Earl of Carnarvon married Almina, the daughter of the wealthy industrialist Alfred de Rothschild, to help finance the preservation of his ancestral home, Highclere. It wasn’t an unusual alliance; British aristocrats were not above marrying money to rescue failing estates. More than 100 American heiresses swapped money for a title during this period, much like the fictional Cora, Countess of Grantham. You can read their stories in To Marry an English Lord, by Gail MacColl. For a look at life downstairs and an examination of the complex relationship between the server and the served, read Servants : A Downstairs History of Britain from the Nineteenth Century to Modern Times, by Lucy Lethbridge, or Below Stairs: The Classic Kitchen Maid’s Memoir, by Margaret Powell. And to prove that art really does imitate life, read Black Diamonds, The Downfall of an Aristocratic Dynasty and the Fifty Years That Changed England, by Catherine Bailey. It’s the fascinating true story of the demise of the one of the wealthiest families in England, a family plagued by lunacy, violent deaths, and illicit love affairs. It’s a juicy read.
If you’ve fallen under the spell of the Crawleys of Downton Abbey, and want to read more about the world they inhabit, visit the library’s website and click on Downton Readalikes.