Books To Aid 'Downton Abbey' Withdrawal

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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

This segment aired on February 23, 2012.


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