Reading

Completed: The World of Downton Abbey

Cover: The World of Downton AbbeyThe World of Downton AbbeyJessica Fellowes Introduction by Julian Fellowes 2011

From knowing her and listening to her story, a clear sense came to me that ‘history’ is not so long ago.

Julian Fellowes, speaking of a great-aunt, who was born in 1880 and died 1971.

This quote from the introduction struck me, as Julian’s great-aunt would have been only about 10 years older than my great-grandma, who died at 98 and whom I vaguely recall. History from the early 1900s, seemingly so long ago, is in a sense so near, and I think, in part, it what drew me to this book and to the TV series it accompanies.

As a companion piece to the ITV hit Downton Abbey (on PBS in the US), The World of Downton Abbey is undoubtedly a book for series fans. I don’t typically seek out TV (or movie) tie-in books, but I was drawn to this one by the lush colors of the pictures that fill it. Although there are many reasons I love the series, the look of it—the settings (I adore old buildings), the costumes, the colors—is one thing that really draws me in, and that is replicated here. The images range from coulda-been-a-screenshot from the series to behind-the-scenes (I get a real kick out of images of the actors in Edwardian dress holding plastic water bottles) to authentic 1910s snapshots. The bulk of the text of the book is a brief overview of the Downton era (1910s), setting the stage for the goings on of the characters and the world they live in.

Behind the scenes on Downton Abbey My favorite chapter was the third, “Change.” When I think back over the last decade I am really amazed at how much has changed in our society in that span, but reading about the early 1900s I wonder if maybe that was an era of even more upheaval. Electricity, telephones, automobiles, movies, airplanes—all really exploded at this time. When first planning out the TV series, Julian Fellowes chose the 1910s as a time that we in the 21st century could still recognize, as the technologies are those we still use. Chapter 3 discusses all these changes in a social context, and it also provides an overview of the culture of the 1910s—the literature, the entertainments, the music, the political scene. This is all fascinating to me and led me off in search of more quick-access (Wikipedia) information.

This is the problem with The World of Downton Abbey—well, not a problem, exactly—but it is only a brief overview. There are so many strands that could be followed. More about servant’s lives, more about the culture, more about WWI. Fortunately, there are two pages of “further reading” suggestions for the curious.

1910s picturesMy only other quibble is that I felt, both in Julian Fellowes’s introduction and in later sections of the book, there was a tendency to romanticize the era, the lives of servants especially. I don’t have difficulty believing that prior to WWI working for a country house really was a desirable position, but the text just seems a bit too positive about the conditions. Of course, when I see that here, I begin to think about the show, and I think perhaps it might be true of the series as well. Ah well. That’s entertainment. Some interesting tidbits I learned:

  • During WWI an officer’s life expectancy on the front was only six weeks.
  • Winston Churchill’s mother was American-born, one of the “buccaneers” that moved to England in search of a title and inclusion in society.
  • The first international phone call (between Paris and London) was made in 1919.
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8 thoughts on “Completed: The World of Downton Abbey

  1. Sounds like an interesting book! I like what you say about romanticizing it, though — and the tidbits you include at the bottom of this post. 🙂

    1. It was interesting! I would have been happy had it gone into a bit more detail, but that would have made for a heavier book. 🙂 I think we have a natural tendency to romanticize the past, so we’re always caught up short a little when we realize we’re doing so.

  2. Looks like an interesting book! I usually shy away from TV/movie tie ins as well, but it seems like this book really brings the Edwardian era to life. Such in interesting time period! It astounds me how much has changed in the last hundred years.

    1. The best bits of the book are those that illuminate the Edwardian/WWI era. Some parts are just what I might expect from a tie-in book (say, the behind the scenes chapter), but the history is really fascinating. Thanks for stopping by!

  3. I appreciate this post as I’ve been curious about this book. My fear was that it would be too many glossy pictures and not enough substance so I’m glad to hear that might not be the case.
    I kind of get the romanticizing. Watching DA usually makes me think that maybe I would have liked to have been a servant if I’d lived back then, but I’m sure that’s not actually the case.

    1. I personally wouldn’t buy the book (I borrowed it from the library) as is still is a bit lightweight material-wise, but it does offer a nice overview of the time period. And makes me want to learn more, which makes it the best sort of book, I suppose!

      I think it’s really easy to romanticize the past (even the recent past), which makes it easier for us to enjoy historical stories, even if the reality wasn’t as nice as we want to believe.

  4. Thanks for this review of the book. As a huge fan of Downton Abbey, I’ve been debating whether it would be worth it to seek out this book. Like you, I think one of the highlights of the show is its look, but I am curious to get a little more background info on its production and the period it represents. I’ll say that my feelings have now tipped in favor of reading this book!

    1. You’re welcome! I’m personally more interested in the time period (I have a fondness for history), but some of the tidbits thrown in about the behind the scenes were fun too. I hope you enjoy it!

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