Inside 'Downtown Abbey'

A lavish 'making of' guide and the frank memoir of a real servant give viewers insights into the show.

Downtown Abbey, the decorated British import about the life of masters and servants on an English country estate on the eve of World War I, returns to PBS for its second season on Jan. 8. The show has been nominated for four Golden Globes, including best miniseries, after winning four Emmys in September. Now, two books offer fans a behind-the-scenes look at the show and reveal the true story behind the hit.

The World of Downton Abbey
by Jessica Fellowes, foreword by Julian Fellowes (St. Martin's Press, 303 pages, $29.99)

With its lush photography and behind-the-scenes tidbits, this official companion book is a love letter to the show by the niece of series creator Julian Fellowes. The recapping of season one is a helpful refresher, and the extra detail (who knew that the turreted Highclere Castle that substitutes for the exteriors of Downton is "an envelope built around a Georgian house, which itself contains a medieval monastery"?) and little asides (a 19th-century home recipe for shampoo) are fun. Readers will marvel at the work that goes into creating the costumes and sets, wonderfully illustrated with copious photos. Plus, the pages of historical background on everything from a maid's schedule to homosexuality are great for American viewers less knowledgeable about the intricacies of the British upper classes.

Below Stairs: The Classic Kitchen Maid's Memoir that inspired Upstairs, Downstairs and Downton Abbey
by Margaret Powell (St. Martin's Press, 212 pages, $22.99)

St. Martin's Press has smartly brought this forgotten 1968 classic back into print in time for season two. Powell's frank memoir, the first real tell-all about the world of "them" (the upstairs gentry) and "us" (the servants), inspired the 1970s hit Upstairs, Downstairs and current favorite Downton Abbey. Powell became a maid in 1922 at the age of 15, eventually rising to cook before leaving to marry a milkman. Her frank talk about sex ("Sunday afternoons were devoted to lovemaking, because there was not much privacy in working-class families. … That's why Sunday school was so popular") seemed scandalous at the time. But what stands out now is her clear-eyed, unromantic description of the hard work of being "in service" and the prejudices of masters who looked down on the staff that served them.

 

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