As an admitted Anglophile who is completely swept up in the current Downton Abbey craze, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on the companion book. Not only did I expect it to have beautiful pictures (which it does,) but I also thought it would be a fun way to satisfy my hunger for more information on the fictional Crawley family and the time in which they lived.
If you are unaware of what Downton Abbey is, it is a mini-series on PBS set in the years surrounding WWI. Downton Abbey is the estate belonging to the Crawley family, the patriarch of which is the 5th Earl of Grantham. The estate, as was the custom, has been handed down to male heirs throughout the years since it was originally bought in the 1600’s. Robert and Cora Crawley, however, have been blessed with 3 daughters and no sons, which creates an obstacle in the inheritance of the estate. That obstacle increases when the next heirs, a male cousin and his son, drown during the Titanic‘s sinking in 1912.
What follows is a series of events that are made more intriguing by the fact that they are happening to an aristocratic family with daughters that need to be married off, a family estate that needs a future owner, and a bevy of servants downstairs who are accompanied by their own set of issues. The class system continues downstairs as well, with the butler at the head and the kitchen maids near the bottom. There are secrets, mysteries, unrequited love affairs, schemes, and other storylines that keep the plot moving forward in a clever and entertaining way.
The Downton Abbey Companion Book does a satisfactory job of being no more than what it claims to be– a “companion.” It does not give away any of the plot beyond the first season. There are a few behind-the-scenes anecdotes, some history of the house that is used (Highclere Castle,) and explanation of the work that is done to preserve the time period’s authenticity.
But what I most appreciated in the book are the tidbits on real-life people who lived during that time; people upon whom some of the characters are based. There are quotes from duchesses, butlers, footmen, maids, and others who lived the time and its required customs. If nothing else, it makes you appreciate the efforts of the writers and production team to create a realistic setting for a fictional family during a time in history when their way of life was slowly becoming more and more obsolete.
The book’s author, Jessica Fellowes, is an author and free-land journalist. She is also the niece of Julian Fellowes, who is the creator and writer of Downton Abbey.
If it seems odd to include a television companion book on a book review site, my only excuse is my love for this series and the fact that it reads like a book. And, because the characters are so well thought out, it is refreshing to read about some of their backgrounds, which is provided in the book. We learn about the history of the house in the series, the courtship of Robert and Cora, and the expectations of everyone in their distinctive social standings.
In fulfilling its intended purpose, the Downton Abbey Companion Book is quite successful.