Sunday, March 11, 2012

The World of Downton Abbey: A Companion Book Done Right

As any fan of the British sensation Downton Abbey will tell you, the idea of waiting a whole year for new episodes (or 6 months if you're okay with that whole illegal downloading thing) is unbearable. So what to do while we wait? HOW TO FILL THE GAP?! Sure, similarly themed shows can help, but that's not the kind of filler I'm talking about. When I finished Season 2, I just wanted MORE, more of the world, more of the characters, more of the costumes, more of the Dowager Countess saying badass things, and the list goes on. Even the DVD of season two only has a half hour of extras! So what is the answer?! HOW DO WE GET OUR FIX?!

Fear not! Solution! Though it was released at the end of last year, no American dared to lay their eyes on companion book, The World of Downton Abbey until this past week, when the second series, spoiled even on the cover, had come to an end. But now that we're all of us on the same page (at least until September, when suddenly places like tumblr and twitter become a hotbed for major spoilage) I highly recommend picking up this book to make the time between now and then easier and in the process, make yourself appreciate what Downton Abbey has accomplished even more.

This companion book, by writer, editor and niece of Julian Fellowes, Jessica Fellowes, is the real deal. This history textbook meets coffee table photo book meet meets art book meets featurette meets interview meets quote book clocks in at almost 300 delectable pages. Unlike some other books for review that have landed on my desk recently, The World of Downton Abbey finds the perfect balance between being chock full of information, yet a breeze to read. It is divided into nine chapters - Family Life, Society, Change, Life in Service, Style, House & Estate, Romance, War and Behind The Scenes, plus at the very end there is a complete cast list and recommended further reading. The pages are colorful, filled with sidebars, photos, quotes and more to keep the eye engaged as well as the mind. This also allows for the option to read every word of the entire book, or if you're a guest in someone's home, or showing it to a friend, the ability to flip through, reading just side bars, excerpts from the teleplays, and quotes, and still get a sense of what the book is trying to teach.

Details after the jump!

The World of Downton Abbey has all of the regular trappings of a companion book in that respect. There is a whole section about the behind the scenes experience, accounts of a day on the set, quotes on what it's like for the actors to play these characters and play off of each other, costume sketches - the usual. But where this book really makes itself stand apart is how in depth it goes into the historical context of the show. Sure, watching it, you get a sense of, okay, clearly the Dowager Countess doesn't like how things are changing, clearly everyone has important reasons for not wanting Sybil to get involved in the suffragette movement, clearly it's absurd that Cora wouldn't get to pass her money onto her women, but it's also clear that it simply isn't an option, clearly some of these servants have aspirations beyond washing clothes, and so on. The show definitely let's us know where the conflict in class and change is, but as someone who isn't particularly educated in the massive changes Britain sustained from the turn of the century to World War II, I never had any real context for what was going on. But this book takes everything you might need to know, from the extremely relevant, like what the exact jobs of each person in the house might be, a full explanation as to why the Earl of Grantham would have an American wife, and the prominent danger of certain militant suffragette groups, to the less exactly topical but still completely important in world building, like how the cinema had evolved and when the first non stop transatlantic flight was completed. The book is littered with numerous one lines from the Dowager Countess, always relating to what is being discussed on that page, and after learning all about David Lloyd George,who would soon become PM, I suddenly understood the exchange,
Grantham: And Mr Lloyd George's new insurance measures will help"

Violet: "Please don't speak that man's name, we are about to eat."
What was a superficial understanding before became a complete one.

The book ends up useful as a manual of sorts as well, for Halloween costumes, a Downton Themed party, or if the SCA has an early 20th Century Britain division. Not only does the book go into incredible detail on the inspiration for the costumes, and how they were made or acquired, but there are sample menus for dinner or garden parties, receipies for food, shoe polish and shampoo, a guide to properly washing silver, helpful household suggestions, a breakdown of how every day would work, for both the calm upstairs and the bustling downstairs, details on the decor of the house, and what exactly each room would be used for, particulars on hair and makeup, and tips on word pronunciation.

And for those most concerned with the goings on off camera, aside from the numerous quotes from the actors, creators and production on what the experience is like, in the behind in the scenes chapter, we also get the whole story of how Downton was conceived, amazing shots of the cast shooting scenes as a cameraman moves on the dolly surrounding the dining table in a perfect circle, models of the downstairs set, which stands at Ealing Studios, and production tidbits like the reasons why we never see the characters eating at dinner Here we also get my favorite fun fact of all - that Maggie Smith has the entire cast "in stitches" whenever they are on set. I was also fascinated to learn that since the upstairs and downstairs are shot on different sets - Ealing Studios vs Highclere Castle, life imitates art in that some of the actors playing servants rarely if ever went to the castle, or when they did, suddenly felt a real life change in status that helped inform their performances. Plus did you know they often have historian Alastair Bruce on set to make sure everything happening is accurate? Or that Winston Churchill was born to an American mother who came over to Britain for an English husband who would accept new money, the way Cora did? Or that upstairs is mostly shot smoothly and downstairs handheld? Or that married women in that time got to have breakfast in bed? Or that all the actresses playing the daughters have only sisters in real life? I could go on for days. There are so many fun facts in this book. I LOVE FUN FACTS.

As you can probably tell by now, this book has A LOT to offer. Reading it not only brought me great joy, but helped me have a much more comprehensive understanding of Downton Abbey's historical context, something I was desperate for and having it all laid out, complete with parallels in the show and information on the figures that inspired particular characters was a wonderful treat. This is an absolutely must own for any fan of the show and will definitely take at least some of the sting out of waiting so damn long to find out what happens next in the world of Downton Abbey.