90.9 WBUR - Boston's NPR news station
Top Stories:
Here and Now with Robin Young
Public radio's live
midday news program
With sponsorship from
Mathworks - Accelerating the pace of engineering and science
Accelerating the pace
of engineering and science
Thursday, February 23, 2012

Books To Aid ‘Downton Abbey’ Withdrawal

A few titles from our list. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

A few titles from our list. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Season two of the PBS hit “Downton Abbey” wrapped up this week and fans will be pining for months: the series isn’t scheduled to return until early 2013.

But as Judith Newman writes in the New York Times book review there are books for deprived Downton fans that can take them upstairs, downstairs and into the history behind the series. Margaret Powell’s “Below Stairs” is a memoir of her life as a kitchen maid, Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes says that it was one of his inspirations for his series.

“Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey” tells the tale of the estate where the series is filmed, written by current resident, Lady Fiona, the Countess of Carnarvon. But, Judith points out, the picture given of Lady Almina, who lived at Highclere during the turn of the 20th century is far rosier than she’s been given in other biographies.

And as Judith Newman says, “The World of Downton Abbey,” written by Julian Fellowes’ niece Jessica, is useful for Americans to help them understand the class system that existed during that time: the hierarchy of below stairs, and what is the difference between a kitchen maid and a ladies maid, the history of the time “not to mention the real-estate porn value of these beautiful pictures.”

Books From The Show:

  • “Below Stairs” by Margaret Powell
  • “The World of Downton Abbey” By Jessica Fellowes
  • “Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey” by the Countess of Carnarvon
  • “Life and Secrets of Almina Carnarvon” By William P. Cross
  • “You Make Me Feel Like an Unnatural Woman” by Judith Newman

Book Excerpt: “The World of Downton Abbey”

By Jessica Fellowes

April 1912.
The sun is rising behind Downton Abbey, a great and splendid house in a great and splendid park. So secure does it appear that it seems as if the way of life it represents will last for another thousand years. It won’t.

From The World of Downton Abbey by Jessica Fellowes. Copyright © 2011 St. Martin’s Press, LLC.

From The World of Downton Abbey by Jessica Fellowes. Copyright © 2011 St. Martin’s Press, LLC.

Welcome to the world of Downton Abbey, a place that has captivated an audience of millions, all following the lives of one family and their servants. Against the backdrop of a fading Edwardian society, we watch their personal dramas unfold and see them through the horrors and change that the First World War brought to Britain. This perhaps is what fascinates us: not just the beautiful scenery, the sumptuous costumes, nor even the skill of the actors, but the fact that we are experiencing something of how life was a hundred years ago. We notice the differences between our lives and theirs; the rigid social hierarchy, the nuances of etiquette, the stifling clothes and the battle for women to be heard. But alongside this, we see something that is the same: family life.

At the forefront of everything at Downton is family, whether this stands for the blood ties of the Crawleys or the relationships between the servants below stairs. All of us can recognise a familiar character amongst them: Violet, the dowager Countess, the old-fashioned grandmother; Mary, Edith and Sybil, the squabbling sisters; Robert and Cora, the loving parents; or Rosamund, the interfering sister-in-law. Any of us who have left behind our families to make our own new, adopted ties with those we work with or with friends we choose are creating a new family, just as the servants do at Downton. With Carson and Mrs. Hughes as the firm but fair parents, Thomas and O’Brien as the scheming siblings and Daisy as the baby, the servants are close by on the other side of the green baize door that separates upstairs and downstairs. Thrown together in cramped quarters, working long, hard hours, the servants nevertheless find security in their relationships with each other. Like all families, they have their ups and their downs, their favourites and a few petty fights.

Downton Abbey is more than just a house; it is also a home to both the family and the servants. Everyone living here is striving to keep the house and estate in good order, ready to pass on to the next generation. So when the question is raised of who will inherit, everyone is affected – above and below stairs. Even a miniature kingdom needs to know who is king.

For the moment, of course, Robert, the Earl of Grantham, is still the master of his realm. In this role, he has his own duties to fulfill just as much as Daisy, the scullery maid at the very bottom of the pecking order. A place like Downton Abbey cannot run well unless everyone within it understands their role and carries out their work efficiently.

From The World of Downton Abbey by Jessica Fellowes. Copyright © 2011 St. Martin’s Press, LLC.

From The World of Downton Abbey by Jessica Fellowes. Copyright © 2011 St. Martin’s Press, LLC.

There is a clear hierarchy at Downton; each servant has a position. The maids deal with the laundry, but the finishing of the clothes for the master and mistress of the house is the responsibility of Bates, valet to Lord Grantham, and Miss O’Brien, lady’s maid to Lady Grantham. These servants enjoy senior roles in the household, are two of the few that move seamlessly between below stairs and above, and enjoy the confidence of their employers. The rest of the staff probably think that these two have easier daily routines than the other servants, having nothing more to attend to than the earl and his wife’s needs. But from the first cup of tea brought up in the morning to whatever they might want last thing at night, they must be on duty all day with little respite. Their relationship with their employers is one of trust and practicality: Bates and O’Brien are welcome in the bedrooms, dressing rooms and even the bathrooms of their employers, making them privy to many details of the family’s private lives, and giving them a powerful position in the household. They could use this to their advantage when back downstairs, teasing or threatening the other staff with it – as when O’Brien learns before anyone else that the heir to Downton Abbey has been drowned during the Titanic disaster.

By contrast, the housemaids – Anna, Ethel, Gwen and Daisy – work behind the scenes. They are up early to complete the dusting of the drawing room and libraries, the plumping of the cushions, the cleaning of the grates and the laying of the fires before the family comes downstairs for breakfast. Only when the bedrooms are empty do the maids go in, to change the sheets and refresh the biscuit jars and water carafes. The rest of the day is spent on cleaning tasks set by the housekeeper, Mrs. Hughes, such as beating rugs or polishing brass, as well as assisting the daughters of the house or any female guests who come to stay without their maids.

They can be called upon at any time; each room in the house has a cord, pulled to summon assistance. The cord is connected to a wire that rings one of many bells on a board in the servants’ hall below; each labeled with the relevant room so the appropriate servant can attend. The jangle of bells is a sound that rules the servants’ lives.

A day in the life of Daisy

4.30am: In the small, dark hours of the morning, the kitchen maid, Daisy, awakes alone, dresses herself in her hand-me-down corset, simple dress and apron and steals down the stairs to stoke the kitchen fire. She creeps round the family’s bedrooms to light their fires, before going down to the kitchen to blacken the stove and lay the breakfast things in the servants’ hall.

AFrom The World of Downton Abbey by Jessica Fellowes. Copyright © 2011 St. Martin’s Press, LLC.

From The World of Downton Abbey by Jessica Fellowes. Copyright © 2011 St. Martin’s Press, LLC.

6am: Daisy knocks on the doors of the housemaids to waken them, then takes her basket of logs with brushes, blacking, matches and paper to lay and light the fires in the rooms on the ground floor – the libraries, drawing room, dining room and great hall. The hall boy, another lowly servant who was only occasionally seen and never heard, has already delivered the coal and kindling wood to the scuttles.

10am: Daisy is still in suds up to her elbows as William and Thomas bring the cleared breakfast things, except for the glasses, which they wash in the servery. There’s no respite even as the last plate is stacked to dry; Mrs. Patmore tells her to start on scrubbing pots and pans needed for lunch before she chops vegetables.

2pm: Once luncheon has been served and cleared away, Daisy has to wash all the pans and crockery once more, ready for dinner.

4pm: The servants enjoy tea, although not all of them can sit down at the same time. This well-earned break ends with the dressing gong, which marks the time when the family retires upstairs to dress for dinner.

7pm: By now, Daisy has been up for 13 hours but she cannot allow her eyelids to droop. The busiest part of her day is about to begin with the final preparations for the family supper, as well as laying out the servants’ supper.

8.30pm: The pots and pans, which had been scoured to gleaming after luncheon, ready for cooking dinner, need to be cleaned again now that it has been served.

9.45pm: When the family’s dinner is finished, Daisy puts her aching hands into the hot soapy water for the last time that day, cleaning the crockery and cutlery. Once she has had something to eat herself in the kitchen, the cook will send her to bed, much to her chagrin – it’s only when the servants have finished their work for the day and are relaxing in the servants’ hall after dinner that the fun begins.

Tomorrow will be the same again. With just one half day off a week, the routine is relentless. At the end of her arduous day, Daisy trudges wearily up the stairs to her room. Just a few hours later, she’ll wake again to another day in Downton Abbey.

From “The World of Downton Abbey” by Jessica Fellowes. Copyright © 2011 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Press, LLC.


  • Judith Newman, contributor for the New York Times

Please follow our community rules when engaging in comment discussion on this site.
  • Gen

    If I never hear the word “porn” applied to non-pornographic things (i.e. real estate), it’ll be too soon.  It’s crass and borderline-offensive.  Thanks.

  • Maggie

    Although disappointed with season 2 because of the predictable and unoriginal writing, I still had to watch it; Maggie Smith’s brilliant acting (best character of the series in my opinion), period custumes and the way they spoke to each other made it worth watching, but again not as good as season 1… I look forward to season 3.

    • sharmin p

      Couldn’t agree more.

  • Shawn5678

    I didn’t get to see the show, but see that there is a Crawley family and an Almina (Amelia). Really? Is it a total rip off of Thackeray’s Vanity Fair or does it have something original to recommend it if not the names?

  • Lojo222

    What a wonderful escape from reality….tks !

  • Alexander

    It’s not the Earls of Carnavan, but Carnarvon, CARNARFAN. Carnarvon is in Wales, though the family seat is in Hampshire on the south coast of England. The 6th earl married an American lady and  the 7th earl who died in 2001 married the grandaughter of the 8th earl of Portland, not far away. She is Dowager Countess He had gone to America to ranch in Wyoming. He returned to England in 1891. One of his grandsons was Senator Wallop of Wyoming who died last year. The British aristocracy between 1867 and 1914 married 567 American heirasses. One of  the late princess Diana’s greatgrandmothers was one of them.

    • bsbBelize

      Thanks for this info! I must admit that I have been so fascinated by what I saw, heard, and read (I use closed captions!) in each of the segments that I saw three to four times, that I didn’t think  of much else. My irnorance, I suspect. 

  • Jack Curtis

    I get that you were emphasizing non-fiction books on Downton Abby era and mileu, but how you leave out the novel of “The Remains of the Day” by Kazuo Ishiguro”! The sequence of Anthony Hopkins (in the movie adaptation)  as the head butler meansuring distances  between utensils and plates in the formal dining place settings was even repeated in “Downton.” Ishiguro masterfully portrays the pyschology behind the butler’s faithul, obsessive service — only a novel could get to that kind of truth.

    And are you aware of Julian Fellowes little inside joke?  — Do you know why Bates was called Bates?  It is, I’m sure, a  tribute to the wonderful Alan Bates, who played the head butler in the movie , “Gosford Park,” written by, you guessed it, Julian Fellowes.

  • Dorothy H.

    There were other borrowings from earlier literature in Downton Abbey.  The Matthew-Lavinia Swire relationship is exactly the opposite of that of Edward Ferrars and Lucy Steele in Sense and Sensibility, also on PBS.  In that Edward, as played by  Dan Stevens, stays true to Lucy, whom he no longer loves, but she holds on tohis promise until the reverse in his inheritance.  But it is Matthew, also played by Dan Stevens, who persists in wanting to marry Lavinia even after she gives him permission to end the engagement.  Lavinia is the good L in  contrast with Lucy.
    The actor who plays Richard Carlisle, Iain Glen, played a similar role in Elizabeth Gaskill’s Wives and Daughters on PBS a few years ago.  He was the jilted and much disliked secret fiance to Cynthia and was finally jilted as Richard Carlisle was in Downton Abbey.
         Lady Sybil’s marrying the chauffer, is an example from life and literature.  Those of us born before 1950 may remember one of the Rockefellar sons marrying a servant in his parents home in New York. Also, remember in the film Sabrina that Audrey Hepburn as the chauffer’s daughter on a New York estate married the scion of the wealthy family inhabiting it?
      Finally, The claim of the pseudo-Patick is reminiscent of pseudo-Anastasia who tried to pass herself off as the daughter of Nicholas II of Russia.
       Isn’t much of literature (or life) a reworking of something else? Didn’t Julian Fellowes do a great job of interweaving these stories to make Downton fresh yet reiminiscent?

  • Chris

    Your list of period books is very short.  I recommend several –
    The amazing Jacqueline Winspear series:  The World of Maisie Dobbs, a series of books about a downstairs girl who rises up.Testament of Youth, by Vera Britain, World War I from a woman’s perspective
    Several by the acclaimed historian Barbara Tuchman, The Guns of August and The Proud Tower: A Portrait of the World Before he War 1890-1914
    and many, many more

Robin and Jeremy

Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson host Here & Now, a live two-hour production of NPR and WBUR Boston.

August 29 Comment

World Championship Tug-Of-War Is ‘A Thing Of Beauty’

This weekend's competition in Wisconsin is a bit more intense than it was in your grade school gym class.

August 29 Comment

Repelling Mosquitoes With A Natural Sticky Patch

The Kite Patch releases odors that block the bug's carbon dioxide receptors, sending them in another direction.

August 28 Comment

Catching Up With The Polyphonic Spree

The choral rock band out of Dallas, Texas, has been thrilling audiences with its live performances for over a decade.

August 28 5 Comments

‘Enormous’ Growth Of Ocean Garbage Patch

The oceanographer who discovered the floating island of trash in 1997 says he's shocked by how much it's grown.