Sunday, 23 September 2012

REVIEW: THE CHRONICLES OF DOWNTON ABBEY BY JESSICA FELLOWES AND MATTHEW STURGISS

THE Downton Abbey fan will cherish this new book. Indeed you need hardly watch the first episode of the series such is the authority, thorough research and plot revelation here, from Jessica Fellowes, niece of series writer Julian Fellowes.
Another draw is that if you buy it before the show goes out tonight you will have a personal scoop with what appear to be exclusive pictures of the wedding of Matthew Crawley and Lady Mary, Downton’s central love story. These are not throwaway snaps either but full-size portraits of the bride and groom. Even the hymns chosen by Matthew and Mary, including Love Divine, all Loves excelling, also sung at Kate and William’s nuptials, are printed. Singalonga Downton Abbey? Having not seen tonight’s episode, I am assuming the wedding does happen, or is this book some elaborate hoax by ITV? Coffee-table in style, the rather weighty tome also has some wonderful photographs of the two other star turns, Dame Maggie Smith and a little-known American actress called Shirley MacLaine, who are competing dowagers in the series; one homegrown, one American. There is great period detail in the book, as in the series itself, including the first class ticket used by Isidore Levinson, MacLaine’s character, to sail from America to Liverpool. For the record, it was a White Star Line ship (not that one, but the Olympic, which stayed in service, crossing the Atlantic, until the Thirties). There is great period detail in the book, as in the series itself, including the first class ticket used by Isidore Levinson, MacLaine’s character, to sail from America to Liverpool This is the third companion book to this television series. Last year’s effort was more thematic, whereas this time Fellowes and Sturgiss have gone for a character-based structure, covering the entire cast. Each chapter has quotes from the actor/actress about their character, pictures of the period and first-hand evidence in the form of letters and books from the time. In some respects, an actor talking about their character is not particularly revealing. What makes this book more readable are the many chunks of information from people who actually lived then, in this case, 1920. The book also includes a Wedding Preparations List, which is essentially about which guest needs a valet or who doesn’t. How the other half, indeed.
There is also a charming advertisement for the first pop-up toaster, made by Hotpoint, which appeared on the scene in 1919, although wasn’t in the shops for another seven years. My favourite ad, however, is for Reduce Your Flesh, an American product which states: “Wear my famous Rubber Garments a few hours a day while walking or exercising and your superfluous flesh will positively disappear.” Given the amount eaten at Downton Abbey, it would have been read with growing interest. Don’t ignore Julian Fellowes’s foreword either. There are some fascinating revelations here. The prodigious writer explains that many of the characters were based on either family, friends or acquaintances. Violet, the Dowager, was inspired by great aunt Isie; the Earl of Grantham resembles his “dear departed father”; the maid of a cousin was the blueprint for ladies’ maid O’Brien and, most amusingly, Carson shares many similarities with his “dear friend” retired butler Arthur Inch. How could you ignore him with a name like that?
Verdict: 4/5 HarperCollins, £20