Before you grumble to Jessica Fellowes about the startling death toll on the most recent season of Downton Abbey, know that the writer was just as shocked as you were at some of the developments.
“I quite like not knowing what happens because I enjoy watching the series,” says the author of The World of Downton Abbey and The Chronicles of Downton Abbey, who appears next week at fundraisers in South Florida for WPBT-PBS 2. “I find it much easier to keep secrets if I don’t know them in the first place. Everyone kept asking me what was going to happen, and I was able to say, ‘I really don’t know.’ I’m such a bad liar, if I had known I would’ve given it away.”
Fellowes, of course, is the niece of Downton creator Julian Fellowes. She has been present for pre-season read-throughs and on set, which gives her a unique perspective on the series about upstairs/downstairs intrigue at an English manor house in the early 20th century.
The series has been a ratings powerhouse for public television: The Masterpiece Classic show’s third season, which ended in February, drew an average audience of 11.1 million each week, with a whopping 12.3 million tuning in for the season finale, according to PBS.org. These are not typical PBS numbers;an audience of 3.2 million is considered solid for Masterpiece Mystery’s Sherlock, another British series that generates social media chatter.
Oscar winner Maggie Smith earned an Emmy for her breakout role as the acerbic Dowager Countess, whose sardonic quips became Internet memes. The series also spawned publication (and re-publication) of books set in the same time period, and is sufficiently entrenched in pop culture to have inspired Wendy Wax’s recent novel While We Were Watching Downton Abbey.
All of which explains how Fellowes, a freelance journalist, ended up being asked to appear at the local benefits.
“She has the inside scoop on the real stories behind the show,” says Rick Schneider, president of WPBT. “She is the perfect host for our celebration of Downton Abbey on Masterpiece.”
Fellowes, who lives in London, clearly enjoys talking about Downton Abbey and its success. Her favorite character is Lord Grantham’s ugly-duckling middle daughter, Edith, jilted at the altar this season (“I go for the underdog”), but she admits she’s probably most like oldest sister Mary (“She’s interesting because she’s strong but silent; she carries this guilt around with her because she ought to have been a boy and is always trying to make up for it somehow.”)
Fellowes learned a lot about the Irish “troubles” from the show and considers her ignorance of that history “embarrassing — it’s current history, and my family has been going on holiday there for 50 years!” She also agrees with most American fans that the series should run at the same time in the United States and the United Kingdom to eliminate spoilers.
Exhaustive research and memoirs from the time helped Fellowes nail down period details for her books, which aren’t merely how-the-show-gets-made episode guides. Instead, they reveal intriguing details of life on a big estate in the early 20th century.
Those bells you see in the show’s opening credits, for example, which summon the servants to various rooms in the manor, are not the “symbol of servitude” we see them as now, she writes. They were a boon to the workers, who could immediately see where they were needed and no longer had to wait for the footman to carry a message to them.
Fellowes says she’s fascinated by the significance of the time period.
“I hadn’t realized the world had changed so astronomically between 1912 and 1920,” she says. “The social changes that were rumbling escalated with World War I. Look at someone like Edith. She would have been brought up with a set of expectations, to marry reasonably well and run a house in the country and hopefully have a couple of children. Until she died, she would be doing what her female ancestors had done for 300 years.
“But suddenly, in less than a decade, things are upside down. She’s worn trousers. She’s driven tractors. She’s working as a journalist. She could move to London and live in a flat . ... I think we can understand this. Our own world, too, has changed hugely in just the last few years. Think about trying to go back to 2003, pre-Facebook, pre-Google, pre-texting. We couldn’t reverse that now. On one hand it’s exciting, but it’s also a little overwhelming. It’s hard to make the right choices.”
Stories like the ones in Downton Abbey offer us a new perspective on the past, Fellowes says.
“We have a tendency to look back on the past and patronize the people of the house,” she says. “We think, ‘If they did this sort of job, they probably thought like this.’ Period drama reminds us they were just like us, only wearing different clothes. Emotionally they were just as messy and complicated.”