Three books about ‘Downton Abbey’

February 14, 2012

With its elegantly appointed rooms and bustling domestic staff, “Downton Abbey” is destination TV for millions. The second season of PBS’s Emmy-winninghit wraps up Sunday, but you can prolong your visit to the era with these books.

1) The World of Downton Abbey , by Jessica Fellowes (St. Martin’s, $29.99), is hefty and lush with color photos and production details. It includes a foreword by series creator Julian Fellowes, the author’s uncle. Divided into sections such as “Society,” “War” and “House and Estate,” it introduces the real-life location, Highclere Castle, a massive, turreted house on 1,000 acres, and the people who live and serve in the magnificent home. Actors reflect on portraying the Grantham and Crawley family members, friends and servants, and the pages are peppered with behind-the-scenes tidbits: Wigs worn by Maggie Smith are prepared in advance so she can slide them on like hats; at the end of a day’s shooting, according to Lesley Nicol (Mrs. Patmore), the actresses bend over the kitchen table to relieve their corsets. Dialogue coach Penny Dyerobserves that “the real difference in speech with a period piece is not so much the pronunciation of the words but that the height of the ceilings and the size of the rooms affect the voice.”This is a book to dip into, not devour, to savor the richness that matches its televised companion.

2) ) Working in less posh environments than the staff at Downton, the late Margaret Powell wrote Below Stairs (St. Martin’s, $22.99), which depicts the hardscrabble reality of a career in domestic service — if such labor can even be described as a “career.” Just reading about it is exhausting. Powell’s recollections of employers who failed to see their “help” as human seem bitter, but who could blame her? Although she won a scholarship at 13, hoping to become a teacher, when her large family needed her to work, she became a maid, ironing bootlaces, cleaning staircases and cooking for the likes of Mrs. Clydesdale and Lady Gibbons. Her husband, a milkman, earned “three pounds five shillings a week . . . so the ability to cook a seven-course dinner was no help at all.” First published in 1968, Powell’s memoir inspired the TV series “Upstairs, Downstairs.” The popularity of “Downton Abbey” has sparked new interest in the book, which was recently re-edited.


“The World of Downton Abbey” by Jessica Fellowes. (St. Martin's Press)

3) Who could know the ins and outs of Highclere Castle better than its current resident? Lady Fiona Carnarvon, the presentcountess, traces the story of the home and her predecessor in Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey (Broadway; paperback, $15.99). An heiress even before her marriage to the fifth Earl of Carnarvon, Almina, illegitimate daughter of banker Alfred de Rothschild, is recognizable to “Downton” fans as the model for Isobel Crawley. Not content to bask in extraordinary wealth, she found outlets for her energy, including politics, “relishing this chance to get out into the world and talk about something of national importance, rather than being merely the public face of Highclere.” But Almina’s greatest satisfaction came from transforming the castle into a convalescent hospital for wounded British soldiers, as dramatized in the TV series. Almina micromanaged everything, even commissioning chic nurse’s uniforms: “Their dresses were made of fine wool in a cheerful crushed-strawberry-pink, with starched white aprons and caps. This detail set the tone: Highclere would be a cutting-edge hospital, but also a sensual retreat from the horrors of combat. Almina proved herself to be an instinctive master of what we might call, nowadays, holistic medicine.” The author includes an update on the Highclere estate today, still home to a very fortunate few.

Blumenstock is a Washington area writer and editor.

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