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.”