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.

Completed: Shakespeare: The World as Stage

Shakespeare: The World as Stage
Bill Bryson

It is because we have so much of Shakespeare’s work that we can appreciate how little we know of him as a person. If we had only his comedies, we would think him a frothy soul. If we had just the sonnets, he would be a man of darkest passions. From a selection of his other works, we might think him variously courtly, cerebral, metaphysical, melancholic, Machiavellian, neurotic, lighthearted, loving, and much more. Shakespeare was of course all these things—as a writer. We hardly know what he was as a person.

Ordinarily, I’m quite content to read a book or a story or a play without knowing all that much about the author—maybe country of origin, era lived. Occasionally, however, I become curious. William Shakespeare has piqued my interest more than usual, simply because we know so little about him and because there are those who even debate his authorship. So I approached Bill Bryson’s brief biography with the idea of learning more about the person, and perhaps his times. However, after completing the book, I find myself completely ambivalent about learning any more about the man. This could be in part because there really wasn’t anything new to me about Shakespeare in the book. Scholars know so little, that pretty much all there is to know I have heard before. The authorship question doesn’t even intrigue me that much anymore as there simply isn’t enough real evidence for any of the positions, and all require assumptions to be made, whether it is the assumption that William Shakespeare did attend grammar school or that the vain Earl of Oxford would be willing not to take credit for his works or that Christopher Marlowe faked his own death.

No, what interests me is the surrounding history, the background. That the work of the Elizabethan playwrights helped bring acceptance to English as a literary language. (The first English grammar was written in Latin!) That the population of England had been shrinking for a century or more. That so many people found a way to attend a play during the day, at a fairly high cost, despite long workdays and low wages. Given the ongoing story of economic instability world-wide over the last few years, I was greatly intrigued to read that at the end of the Elizabethan era, wages were lower than they had been a century prior while food prices had drastically increased. (Sound familiar?) Thanks to our limited factual knowledge about Shakespeare—or just about any other individual of the era not connected with the Royal Court—Bryson’s book was filled with such factual tidbits.

Panorama of London by Claes Van Visscher, 1616 – Click to enlarge
Image source

My favorite chapter, easily, is the third, “The Lost Years, 1585-1592.” Scholars know absolutely nothing about Shakespeare in this time frame, so to pass through it, Bryson discusses the London of the era: the character of the city, the character of its inhabitants, a skimming of the history of these years. I loved it. I was taken back, not just to late 1500s London, but to Florence, Italy in 2003. I was in Florence studying architecture at that time and one of our professors was a local, a history professor who split his time between several American study-abroad programs. The class he taught us, one of my favorites, was a history of the Medieval and Renaissance city—just the time frame Shakespeare’s London fits into. The description of a city crammed inside ancient walls, buildings overhanging narrow streets, divided based on parish, slums springing up outside the city, is all so familiar to me even when localized to London. I spent too many hours looking up the images Bryson references: maps of London, panoramas, sketches of the old London Bridge. It is hardly more than a glance at the era, but was the highlight of the book for me.

This isn’t to say that Shakespeare the man isn’t interesting. He is. It’s just hard to tell if he’s interesting because he actually was interesting or if he’s interesting because we don’t know much about him. I can see that Shakespearean scholarship could be very interesting—can you imagine if a scholar should stumble upon a treasure trove of information about him?—but at this point, my curiosity has been sated. The plays and poems are sufficient. Nay, given his genius, more than enough.