A Downton Reader

The proliferating of literary "Downton Abbey" spin-offs suggests that historical fiction is finally gaining some confidence.

By Nancy M. WestMarch 4, 2016

A Downton Reader

IN ONLY A FEW DAYS, Downton Abbey will be over. The soul-crushing disappointment I once imagined feeling now seems unlikely. Like many of you, I’ve grown tired of the ludicrous plotlines and engineered emotion. “Downton Abbey has become Downton Crappy,” pronounces my teenage neighbor. But remember when this wasn’t the case? Think back to the series’s opening. Remember how masterfully it transported us back to 1912?

First, we saw a telegraph machine clicking out news of the Titanic disaster, followed by shots of a train, a village, and a resplendent Highclere Castle. Seconds later we were following Daisy, the kitchen maid, as she scuttled through rooms with an ash bucket. Then Thomas walked into the frame, dashing in livery as he collected glasses from the previous night. We passed housemaids Anna and Gwen, plumping pillows amid an army of bustling servants. We saw Mrs. Hughes, the housekeeper, patrolling the hallways and Carson, the butler, instructing William to iron Lord Grantham’s newspapers. Then we traveled upstairs to an opulent bedroom where Lady Mary, looking like some disappointed princess, sat atop her bed and rang the bell for service. “And they’re off,” quipped Thomas.

So was Downton Abbey. Over its six seasons and 52 episodes, the series didn’t just give us a story; it gave us a world. This is why we devoured the show, anticipating each episode as we swore that we couldn’t take One More Second of Anna and Bates’s suffering. All television drama gives us worlds, of course. But few have been as densely detailed, or as expansive, as Downton Abbey. “The series created a fictional universe far bigger than what we saw on the screen,” explains Henry Jenkins, a professor of media studies at USC. “It’s an elaborate mythology, really.”

And like other mythological worlds — The Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, Harry Potter Downton Abbey has inspired myriad artists to revisit it. Nowhere is this more apparent than in literature, where we find reinventions of Downton Abbey in every genre from romances to spy novels.

A survey of this literature allows all of us — not just Downton viewers — to recognize the world-building potential of historical fiction. Once considered fusty territory, it has proven itself to be just as participatory, just as immersive, as the world of science fiction.

The Details of Downton

“We wanted to let viewers know there are layers and layers of meaning in the series,” Jessica Fellowes explains. A journalist and niece of the scriptwriter, Fellowes has authored several “companion volumes” to Downton Abbey, including The World of Downton Abbey, A Year in the Life of Downton Abbey, and Downton Abbey, A Celebration: The Official Companion to All Six Seasons. Companion books tend to be a gimcrack genre, but these have substance. They reveal the show’s staggering attention to detail — and demonstrate how Downton Abbey (and by implication, other recent period dramas like Mad Men and Outlander) is conditioning us to see details differently. Before, details conveyed a sense of spectacle or verified a show’s authenticity. Now they suggest that historical worlds are far too big to grasp in a single viewing — or medium.

“Through the photographs,” Fellowes says, “you can see — really see — what only flashes by on the screen.” We view one of Lady Grantham’s breakfast trays — and read how every one contained a cooked meal, a facsimile of a period newspaper, and specially created letters, “written on the correct paper for the era, by either a man or woman as appropriate, using a fountain pen and ink and even containing the right sentiments.” We learn about the workings of country estates and debutante balls; we discover that most country girls went to the altar pregnant because “no farmer would risk a barren wife.” All of this suggests that Downton Abbey is as layered as a mille-feuille, lovingly constructed by Julian Fellowes and a bevy of experts. But it also implies that despite its density of detail, Downton Abbey has barely skimmed the surface of its own environment.

Downton Abbey’s brief running time left fans yearning for more, frustrated at having to wait 10 months for another season. Our frustration was especially keen because Downton Abbey patterned itself on soap opera. Nancy Baym says we form a “parasocial relationship — a kind of family” with soap opera characters, partly because we get so inside their lives, partly because soap opera tends to be a form of “lifelong storytelling.” Downton Abbey’s tight duration, however, made that kind of intimacy impossible. So Jessica Fellowes aims to provide it. She deepens Downton’s characters, imagining motivations and backgrounds only implied in the scripts. Her profile of Anna, for example, is remarkably poignant. Noting her reserve, especially her total silence on the subject of her family, she explains, “[f]or all her kindness — which is true — something has made her close herself off from most of the world.” Insights like these run throughout Fellowes’s books, making the characters seem more complex than they are in the show.

St. Martin’s Press designed these volumes as souvenirs, lavishly produced objects that will make us ache, nostalgically, for the lost world of Downton Abbey and the six years we spent watching it together, worldwide. In this sense, they expand the show’s world by locating it in some mythical, idealized time even as, like all souvenirs, they reduce a public experience to a private one.

The Romance of Downton

When Downton Abbey finished its first spectacular season in 2011, publishers knew what to do. “They got on Twitter and said they’d ‘kill for a series of Downtonesque novels,’” explains T. J. Brown, the author of one of these series. “So I submitted 20 pages to Gallery Books and before I knew it, I had a contract,” she tells me. Why a series? Because “publishers are after immersion. They know that readers of historical fiction want the world building,” she says. By January 2013, just as Downton Abbey launched its third season, Brown’s Summerset Abbey series was in bookstores. I sat down to read the first of these books one Saturday afternoon and didn’t get up until almost midnight.

Brown guesses that hundreds of “vaguely Downtonesque” novels have been published since the show began. Others include Katherine Longshore’s Manor of Secrets, Barbara Taylor Bradford’s Cavendon Hall, Judith Kinghorn’s The Last Summer, Daisy Goodwin’s The Fortune Hunter, Jane Sanderson’s Ravenscliffe: A Novel, Elizabeth Wilhide’s Ashenden, and trilogies by Fay Weldon, Rosemary McLaughlin, and Elizabeth Cooke. Set in the early decades of the 20th century, they feature country estates, family dramas, and servants with heartaches and troubles of their own. Presses market them via the television series: through titles (Summerset Abbey, Downstairs Rules), cover images (Downtonesque women pictured against country estates), and quotes that make the connection explicit (“Anyone suffering Downton Abbey withdrawal symptoms will find an instant tonic in Daisy Goodwin’s deliciously evocative novel”).

Reading these books, we see how they gesture toward a world much larger than Downton Abbey. We find traces of classic texts like Jane Eyre, Rebecca, and Brideshead Revisited and more popular ones like The Shooting Party, The Remains of the Day, and Atonement. We realize that Downton Abbey and its literature taps into a robust mythology Evelyn Waugh once described as the “cult of the country house.”

The best of these Downton-inspired books combine the comfort of familiarity with the smack of surprise. Cooke’s novels, for example, use the master/servant divide of Upstairs, Downstairs, Gosford Park, and Downton Abbey but locate much of their action on World War I battlefields. They shift deftly from the violent disruptions of combat to the unruffled existence of upper-class living. And they provide a panoramic treatment of character psychology that feels almost — dare I say it? — like reading Virginia Woolf. Aiming to capture Downton Abbey’s primarily female audience, these Downtonesque novels also infuse their stories with romance, sex, and feminism. Fay Weldon brings a welcome air of feminist mischief to her trilogy, for example. She makes her women far more energetic, shrewd, and progressive than her men. She also lets them talk about sex (a lot). And she lets them engage in it (premaritally). Weldon takes obvious delight in the titillations of Edwardian lovemaking — a game Julian Fellowes would have loved to play had he not been writing family drama. But if readers find her books too tame, they can always turn to Sera Belle’s series of “Downton Abbey Historical Erotica.”

The Histories of Downton

Take all the novels patterned after Downton Abbey and you’d fill a wall of Lord Grantham’s library. Add the nonfiction books inspired by the series — the biographies, social histories, memoirs, cookbooks — and you’d fill a wing. Many of the histories aim to set the record straight on British servants. They include Alison Maloney’s Life Below Stairs, Jacky Hyams’s The Real Life Downton Abbey, and Lucy Lethbridge’s compelling Servants. A vivid sweep of servant life from 1900 to 1970, Lethbridge’s book foregrounds the voices of housemaids, cooks, butlers, and footmen by drawing on diaries and the reports of undercover journalists. The scenes they describe are decidedly not Downtonesque. We hear from one housemaid that she had to change the linens every day because “[h]er ladyship can’t sleep with creases on a pillowcase.” A cook recounts how she had to “stir the breakfast eggs continuously while they were boiling so that they would be perfectly positioned in the middle of the white.” And Thomas Hardy’s parlor maid describes how her master — a “quiet, shabby little sparrow” — patrolled the corridors of his house, searching for cobwebs she possibly missed. Purporting to be more truthful accounts than Downton Abbey, they suggest that a far grimmer world lies behind the anodyne one of the show.

Lady Carnarvon’s Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey, by contrast, remains faithful to the season. As Carnarvon recounts, the fifth Earl of Carnarvon, like the fictional Lord Grantham, found himself long on lineage but short on cash in 1894. He married Almina Wombell to rescue his family estate from ruin. Then he fell in love with her. Sound familiar? Indeed, Lady Almina reads just like the courtship story often alluded to in Downton Abbey between the Granthams. It answers our need for the backstory we never get. This is hardly an accident. Lady Carnarvon and her husband, the eighth Earl of Carnarvon, are close friends with Julian Fellowes. Carnarvon and Fellowes were at work on their projects simultaneously and kept in close correspondence, hopeful that interest in one project would fuel interest in the other. The result is that as we read about a “real” woman, we respond to her as the fictional one we’ve come to know; and as we watch the series, we recall Carnarvon’s book. We’re reminded of how history always borrows from fiction, overtly or not. This is also apparent in how Countess Carnarvon conveniently expunges those parts of her heroine’s life that don’t correspond with Downton Abbey. The last pages of her book scud through Almina’s postwar life and omit her decidedly un-Downtonesque end; broke and shabby, she choked on some stew and died. How do we know this? Because another post-Downton history, The Life and Secrets of Almina Carnarvon, provides a very different portrait of Lady Almina.

Lady Carnarvon has made no bones about her desire to “turn a castle into a cash register,” as The New York Times puts it. She opens Highclere Castle up to 1,500 tourists daily during the summer, charging a $27.00 admission fee. She rents it out for weddings and filming. She gives countless speaking engagements (starting at $20,000). “It’s both my husband’s family home and my home, but it has to be a business,” she explains. Her books, like the television show, are part of this business. In enlarging the imagined world of Downton Abbey, Lady Carnarvon is ensuring the survival of the actual world behind it.

Parodies of Downton

No self-respecting survey of Downton-inspired literature can omit Agent Gates and the Secret Adventures of Devonton Abbey, a graphic novel and self-proclaimed parody that lays bare the show’s conventions. The novel focuses on Gates, the valet to an aristocrat named Lord Granville and secret agent for the Crown, who bears a not-too-subtle likeness to John Bates, Grantham’s valet. Gates has uncovered a plot spearheaded by Thompson, the dastardly footman, to plunge the world into World War I. With the help of his steam-powered, titanium leg and his fellow agents at Devonton — including the Dowager Countess (Devonton’s chief of secret operations) — Gates tries to stop Thompson and vicious lady’s maid, O’Malley, while maintaining his cover as valet.

Agent Gates takes constant jabs at the pampered life of the Granthams, as when Gates informs Lord Granville that he has a telegram. “Has it been ironed?” Granville asks. With spot-on illustrations, it also lampoons the behavior of every major character from Edith Crawley’s whining to Matthew Crawley’s anti-aristocratic stance (“Call Me Marty,” Martin Crawhill instructs his butler). And in converting Downton to spy fiction, it underscores the show’s reliance on suspense, intrigue, and most of all, melodrama. As in all good melodramas, everybody has a secret in Downton Abbey. By converting the story to a spy novel, Agent Gates calls our attention to this theme while demonstrating how easily melodrama shifts from one world to another. Melodrama isn’t just the stuff of soap opera, as Downton’s critics imply. Ever-evolving and adaptable, melodrama gets around. It builds new worlds far more easily than realism, which is why Julian Fellowes made such use of it.

Agent Gates is one among hundreds of Downton Abbey parodies. Others include Downton Tabby, a children’s book, and Downton Zombie, a video in which all the characters killed off in the show return as zombies. For a naughty one, you can try Down on Abby, starring Lord Grabhem, his butler, Smallcock, and, of course, Master Bates. An entire TV series now parodies Downton Abbey: Comedy Central’s Another Period, whose aristocrats name their servants “Chair” for convenience sake. We don’t need to be fans of the show to enjoy these parodies; Downton Abbey is such a part of our cultural imagination that we’re all in on the joke. Lately, cast members have been joining the fun, mocking their characters in spoofs like Breaking Abbey (where Carson, Lord Grantham, and Thomas sell tea to drug lords). In fact, this past season of Downton Abbey seemed rife with self-parody — as if, now that it’s ending, everyone could admit, “Yes, we know it’s ridiculous.” In these moments, the fourth wall almost seemed broken. In these moments, the world of Downton Abbey expanded yet again.

Worlds of History

What, in the end, does all this literary output tell us? To begin, it shows how Downton Abbey has helped create a new culture where television drama is now good enough to inspire a variety of writers to adapt or expand it. In the future, what we view could regularly evolve, as it has with Downton Abbey, into what we read. If this becomes the case, all the delicious drama we’re watching now, from Luther to Game of Thrones, wouldn’t fade to black. Instead, it would grow into new characters and new stories, across new genres and new medias.

This output also suggests that in this age of texting and tweeting, we’re desperate for narrative. Not just any narrative but world-building narrative. We see this in the explosive popularity of long-form television drama, certainly. But we also see it in our new reading habits. As presses recognized six years ago, it was better to publish a trilogy of Downtonesque novels than just one of them. Immersion, in short, is what’s allowing us to survive a life of distraction.

Finally, all this literary revisiting of Downton Abbey suggests that historical fiction — a genre plagued from the start by insecurity — is finally gaining some confidence. We see this everywhere, from Downton Abbey to Hilary Mantel’s bold retellings of Henry VIII in Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies to The Knick’s flamboyant camerawork. Downton Abbey’s literature isn’t just about storytelling, then. It’s also about how we’re starting to view history — as a world we can become involved in, see ourselves in, make our own.


Nancy West is a Professor of English at The University of Missouri in Columbia. The author of two books (Kodak and the Lens of Nostalgia and Tabloid, Inc), she publishes on a wide variety of topics including photography, film, and television drama.

LARB Contributor

Nancy West is a professor of English at The University of Missouri in Columbia. She is the author of three books: Kodak and the Lens of Nostalgia (University of Virginia , 2000); Tabloid, Inc: Crime, News, Narrative (Ohio State University Press, 2010); and Masterpiece: America’s Fifty-Year-Love Affair with British Television Drama (Rowman and Littlefield, 2021). Nancy publishes on a wide variety of topics including photography, film noir, film adaptation, and television drama. She is currently working on a memoir entitled Moviemade Girl. It’s a  bittersweet account of how she, as a young girl growing up in the violent city of Newark, New Jersey, found escape in the movie-rich culture of 1960s and ’70s New York. Guiding her through that culture was her wayward dad, an unemployed alcoholic with expensive tastes, an aesthete’s sensibility, a penchant for petty crime, and a religious devotion to Hollywood film.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!