By now you are probably aware that I’m a fan of these Life, Time Inc. book/magazines that feature everything from history, to style, and, in this case, culture. The immensely popular British TV series, Downton Abbey, is in its sixth and final season, and so Life has created a luscious commemorative magazine to celebrate it.
From the cover photos of the Crawley family and staff, through to historically paralleling articles of characters and events from the series, there is something for everyone here, whether you are a history buff interested in the era, or simply a person fascinated by the show itself — its grandeur, costumes, tension, and wit.
The book begins with a photo album of the Crawley family, full page photos of each member, and half way through the book, does the same with the senior staff. As the book progresses, it alternates between the events in the production, and the underlying historical events — the fiction and the fact, if you will.
In his introduction, editor J.I. Baker writes about the inception of the drama, its success, and the inevitability of its end with season 6, now showing in North America. The book, Baker says, features
a look at the real life history behind the show, a sneak peak at season six, a five season recap, and most notably, a portfolio of lush, little-seen portraits from renowned photographer Clive Booth . . . [A book to] celebrate six short years of love, lust, marriage, death, war — and impeccable table manners.
I was especially intrigued with the use of the sinking of the Titanic as the starting point of the series — why it was chosen and how it was woven into the story — Lord Grantham’s (Hugh Bonneville) possible heirs have gone down with the ship, literally, and an unknown distant cousin is to inherit on his death as he has no male heir; the land and even Grantham’s wife’s fortune are entailed. The history article about the Titanic which follows is particularly well done. No matter how much you’ve already read and seen about the tragedy, the write-up here and the archival photos give a great backdrop for the premise of the Downton drama.
Another event that greatly influenced the script was the suffragette movement which draws in Lady Sybil (Jessica Brown Findlay) and throws her together with the Irish rebel turned chauffeur, Tom Branson (Allen Leech). We begin to see the blurring of lines between family and staff, the eroding of traditions and ceremony, and the inevitable changes brought on by war and technology.
The Great War plays a huge part in the show as Downton does its part by becoming a convalescent home, the beginning of sweeping change for both family and staff. There is, naturally, a section about the story and the history of that which touches on what, today, we would recognize as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Then, we’re brought into the 20s and the Art Deco and Jazz/Flapper era which comes alongside the changing social mores, the demise of many of the manors, and the involvement of townsfolk in what traditionally had been manor decisions. The drama covers a lot of history in a very short time.
The book contains lots of pithy quotes, connections to the past and future, and a peek into season six with only a tease of spoilers. (Will Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan) and Carson (Jim Carter) tie the knot?) One family member conspicuously absent from the book is Isabel Crawley (Penelope Wilton), Matthew’s mother, who played a large role as mother of the heir, a female willing to take part and instigate change, and, at times, an instrument of cohesion within the family. But, aside from a shot in a group scene on the back cover, and a photo where she is talking to Lady Violet (Maggie Smith) in which we only see the back of her head, she is not featured at all. I find that puzzling. Something else that puzzles me, and I’ve tried to resolve this on the Internet without luck, is why Downton is an abbey. It seems to me that it is like a manor and naming it an abbey, which to me is a religious house, is confusing. No answer to that in this book either. Perhaps someone can enlighten me.
None-the-less, a fun book to read and refer to about an iconic series soon coming to the end. Thanks Time, Inc. for another great addition to my library. * * * *