Purpose of this Blog...

You may have noticed that not all books are equal in capturing children's imaginations and in cultivating those innocent, tender souls. My goal is to help you find the ones that do!
(Painting by Mary Cassatt: "Mrs Cassatt Reading to her Grandchildren" -1888)

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Downton: What's this Abbey's Appeal?

That question may seem like a strange subject for a children's book blog, but I think the answer can be applied to writing in general - whether it be literature for children or, as in this case, a smash-hit public television series. I discovered the answer last week.  From one of the creators of the series, Julian Fellowes (I'll share his answer at the end of my post).

Surely you've heard about Julian Fellowes’s Emmy Award-winning show about an Edwardian family,  their servants, and their life in an English manor.  I admit I am one of the many people who has gone through Downton Abbey withdrawals in-between seasons and has counted down the days until the newest episode aired on Sunday nights.

I've asked myself more than once why this PBS Masterpiece Classic series appeals to such a broad spectrum of viewers - women, as well as men (my husband is a huge fan), Brits and Americans.

Is it because we all love history and period dramas?
Last summer (while in withdrawals between seasons) I read Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey: The Lost Legacy of Highclere Castle. This biography, written by the current Countess at Highclere, Fiona Carnarvon, is a thoroughly enjoyable and entertaining account of the Fifth Earl of Carnarvon, his wife, Lady Almina, and their grand castle, the inspiration for the popular PBS series. The fictional character of Downton's Lady Cora Crawley is loosely based on Lady Almina, the real-life American heiress and illegitimate daughter of banking tycoon Alfred de Rosthschild.

The real Downton Abbey: Highclere Castle

Is it the Downton Fab-bey set and scenery?  Downton Abbey is filmed at Highclere Castle, and the fabulous manor house has a starring role in the series each week (click here for more beautiful photos).

Highclere's library holds 5,000 books!
Beautiful salon

Is it the authentic costume design? Many of us look forward to the gorgeous gowns and dapper dinner jackets!

The Crawley sisters: Edith, Sybil, and Mary

Maybe it's Maggie Smith's one-liners? (Can you imagine having Violet Grantham as your grandmother?)

Dowager Countess: "What is a weekend?"
One of her most comical moments so far, was from last week's Season 3 opening episode...
All of Lord Grantham's formal shirts are mysteriously missing from his room and he has no choice but to wear an inappropriately informal shirt under his dinner jacket. His mother, the Dowager, mistakes him for one of the staff and asks for a drink.  As she turns and sees that it is the Earl of Grantham, without missing a beat she quips, "Oh I’m so sorry, I thought you were a waiter…”

Remember these gems?
Don’t be defeatist dear, it’s very middle class. 

I’m so looking forward to seeing your mother again. When I’m with her I’m reminded of the virtues of the English. 

No guest should be admitted without the date of their departure settled.

Is it the characters and romance? Now we're getting closer to Julian Fellowes answer...

Lady Mary and Matthew Crawley

Mr. Bates and Anna

Can you pinpoint what the main appeal of "Downton Abbey" is?  Consider Julian Fellowes answer: 
Over the last two rather extraordinary years, at the risk of sounding vain, I have often been asked why I thought Downton Abbey has been quite such a success.  Of course, it is hard to be definite about these things.  If television were an exact science, there would be nothing made that did not break records.  but supposing I were to put my finger on one element, it might be that we have made the decision to treat every character, the members of the family and the members of their staff, equally, in terms of their narrative strength.  They all have emotional lives, dreams, ambitions, and disappointments, and with all of them we suggest backstories, any of which are to be found in my own history...

The upper class family of Downton

The working class "family" of Downton

I was brought up in a class minefield.  My father's birth was grander than my mother's, his relations therefore disapproving of both her family and her, and she was condemned to the unenviable task of making everything in their life seem smooth and seamless when it was in fact riven with stitching...I suppose standing, as it were, on both sides of the divide has influenced my work...It is precisely because I identify with both teams that my writing, if I am allowed to say so, aspires to a kind of social justice which, I believe anyway, is one of the reasons it as reached so wide an audience.
[source: Parade Magazine, January 6, 2013]

Fellowes' honest answer is why we love classic children's literature such as Frances Hodgson Burnett's  The Secret Garden (Mary Lennox, Colin Craven, Dickon); Charles Dicken's A Christmas Carol (Ebeneezer Scrooge, Bob Crachit, Tiny Tim); Charolotte Bronte's Jane Eyre (Mr. Rochester, Jane); Frances Hodgson Burnett's A Little Princess (Sara Crewe, Becky); Johanna Spyri's Heidi (Heidi, Clara, Peter); Sid Fleischman's The Whipping Boy (Jemmy, Prince "Brat" Horace); and fairytales such as Cinderella.

Well, here's to Sunday night!  Excuse me while, I go and  feed my weekly obsession...

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