Tuesday, June 26, 2012

The World of Downton Abbey by Jessica Fellowes

The World of Downton Abbey is the companion to the popular television series, Downton Abbey. This book provides the background to the world of Downton Abbey with chapters on family life, society, working in service to the upper class British society, fashion, the estate and romance.

Highclere Castle
The series which is set in the time when Edwardian society is beginning its decline, follows the story of one family and their servants. Downton is home not only to the Crawley family but also to the many servants who keep the estate house functioning.

The World of Downton Abbey provides wonderful insights into what it meant and what it was like to be in the life of service. For example, in Chapter One: Family Life, there is a short piece on Life in The Kitchen which tells us that kitchen staff worked the longest hours. The kitchen was the domain of the cook who did not tolerate interference from any other member of the household staff. In the chapter titled, Life In Service, Fellowes goes through each of the serving positions from lady's maid to butler to valet.

In Chapter Two: Society, there is background information on the real-life woman who formed the basis for the character Cora Crawley. That real person was Mary Leiter who was the daughter of the a very wealthy Chicago real estate speculator. Following in the tradition of other wealthy American girls traveling overseas to meet and marry upper class men, Mary managed to meet and dance with the Prince of Wales in 1890, thus ensuring her place in high society. She eventually went on to meet the Honourable George Curzon whom she married in 1985. To set the stage for presenting such people as Mary Leiter, Jessica Fellowes provides some historical background about "Buccaneer" girls, like Mary. The Buccaneers were eligible, wealthy young American women who came to Britain beginning in the late 1870's seeking husbands. These were the daughters of wealthy self-made Americans who sought entrance into high society - something "new" money couldn't buy in America. Early Buccaneers had no problem finding men to marry because many of the titled estates in Britain needed the American money to finance these huge properties. Other topics explored include primogeniture - the right of the eldest male to inherit an estate and a young woman's "coming out" in society.

The double library at Highclere
In Chapter Six: House and Estate, the focus is on Downton Abbey itself. The house, is actually Highclere Castle which has been home to the Earls of Carnarvon since 1679. The current turreted castle is built around a Georgian house which contains part of a medieval monastery used by the Bishops of Winchester many years before. The castle  is built in the Jacobethan style which is a mixture of Gothic and Elizabethan. The estate itself is comprised of 1000 acres of parkland and exquisite gardens. The State Dining Room contains the famous portrait of Charles I by Van Dyck. Another beautiful room is the double library which contains over 5600 books, some dating to the 1600's. There are eleven bedrooms on the first floor, including the Stanhope bedroom which is used as Mary's bedroom in Downton Abbey. It was decorated in rich reds for the visit of the Prince of Wales in 1895.

As was the case for many British estates of the late 1800's, Highclere was saved by the money of an American heiress, Almina Wombwell, who was believed to be the illegitimate daughter of Alfred de Rothschild.

Chapter Eight: War deals with the First World War including the effect of the war on society in Britain, the experiences of the soldiers, the changing role of women in society, and the Spanish flu.

There is no doubt that The World of Downton Abbey captivates the reader with it gorgeous photographs from the television series as well as numerous plates of historical images from the time period. It is well written, informative and will provide the series viewer with a solid background into the time period of Downton Abbey.

Book Details:
The World of Downton Abbey. The Secrets and History Unlocked by Jessical Fellowes
New York: St. Martin's Press     2011
303 pp.

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