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The Chronicles of Downton Abbey: A Review

Chronicles of Downton Abbey

This Christmas I received The Chronicles of Downton Abbey: A New Era, the latest Downton companion book by Jessica Fellowes, niece of series creator Julian Fellowes.  And I could not put it down.  It was the perfect way to gear up for the coming third season, which starts this Sunday (Jan. 6) on PBS.

I think I prefer Chronicles to Fellowes’s other companion book, The World of Downton Abbey.  Each chapter takes an in depth look at one (and sometimes two) of the main characters both upstairs and down.  Fellowes discusses events that have taken place in the characters’ lives and how they’ve shaped and changed their personalities over the course of the series.  Select quotes are scattered throughout to break up the narrative text, along with beautiful color photographs from the set.  The actors give their takes on what makes their characters tick, and Fellowes also tucks in tidbits from her research to help explain character motivations.  This was the part I found particularly insightful.  When you know more about the life of a ladies maid, it helps to round out the background of O’Brien.  We better understand the hardships Lady Sybil and Branson face when we can compare their situation to other couples of the time who married outside their social class.

In addition, costume designer Caroline McCall explains her vision for each character and how that came across in their wardrobe, and the end of each chapter has a page filled with material objects that would have been a part of the character’s daily life.

Fellowes does an excellent job of bringing the characters to life on the page.  And I also think the book helps to give the characters more dimension than they sometimes get on the screen by taking plenty of time to discuss their backstory, their hopes for the future, and the challenges they presently face.  The fictional characters are made more real when their lives are compared to their real life contemporaries.

I give The Chronicles of Downton Abbey five stars, a must-own for any Downton enthusiast.

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The World of Downton Abbey

As mentioned in the previous post, I am suffering from D.A.W. (Downton Abbey withdrawal).  In my search for a cure I procured the season 2 DVD set (see my thoughts on it here).  But there’s another great treatment option: The World of Downton Abbey by Jessica Fellowes (the niece of series creator Julian Fellowes).  It’s the companion guide to the first two seasons of the show, but it’s more than just behind-the scenes information.  Fellowes provides us with colorful historical context so we can better understand the social system the characters of the show live in, and how that system went through tremendous changes during the early 20th century.

The book covers such topics as the Buccaneers, the wealthy American women who came overseas in order to marry cash-strapped Englishmen with titles.  This gave the husband the money he needed to maintain his estate, while catapulting the wife into the upper echelons of society.  Fellowes relates this arrangement to the situation with Robert and Cora.  So while she discusses factual events, she tells them from the perspective of the fictional characters.

There are interesting side stories throughout the book as well, including the real-life historical figures that inspired such characters as Lady Cora and Sir Richard Carlisle.  And of course there’s page after glossy page of beautiful photographs from the series.

The book’s chapters focus on topics such as style, family life, life in service, changes that took place at the beginning of the 20th century, and the impact of World War I.  There are plenty of behind-the-scenes tidbits scattered throughout, as well as an entire chapter devoted to the subject.  It’s a fantastic read, and it helps you appreciate the series’ attention to historical detail even more.

You can get a taste of what’s in the book on PBS’s website.

Jessica Fellowes will be doing a live chat interview on PBS’s Masterpiece website on Monday (Feb. 27) at 1:00 PM.  Click here to go to the page and find out more.

You can also listen to an interview with Fellowes about the book that was conducted earlier by NPR here.

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