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.
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.
My 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.