Getting down with “Downton”

For Julian Fellowes – the Oscar-winning writer (“Gosford Park”) behind PBS’ “Downton Abbey” – the great English country homes are shelters not of the past, but for it.

“We woke up to the idea that these houses were an integral part of our history,” he writes in the foreword to “The World of Downton Abbey” (St. Martin’s Press) “that the life formerly lived in them had involved us all, whether our forebears had been behind the green baize door or in front of it, that they were not simply huge and unmanageable barns, no longer viable without sufficient staff, but expressions of our national character that we should be proud of.”

That character – tested and tempered by tragedy – lies at the heart of “Downton Abbey,” now filming its fourth season after a three-year run that has inspired praise and parody, as well as a slew of calendars, cookbooks, puzzles and similarly themed novels.

Such commercialization would no doubt alarm the fictional post-Edwardian Crawleys, who possess – and are in many ways possessed by – Downton, the family’s equally fictional countryseat in Yorkshire. One can just hear Lady Violet – the Dowager Countess of Grantham and family matriarch, played with withering wit and wisdom by Maggie Smith – saying, “Oh dear, how very middle class.”

Keepers of the flame

The Crawleys upstairs – and their servants downstairs – are defenders of tradition even as they adapt to changing times. Indeed, one could say that the reason they adapt to change is so they can hold on to what is most dear, a theme that is crystallized by the house itself, depicted in the series by Highclere Castle, the Victorian-style countryseat of the Earl of Carnarvon in Hampshire.

Each episode opens not with glimpses of the stars, but snippets of domestic details – a path in the park leading up to the house, a bell ringing in the servants’ quarters, a feather duster caressing a chandelier, a maid with flowers stepping gingerly over an Oriental rug being unspooled by two male servants. The house as shelter to a way of life is the raison d’etre. Certainly, it is for its head, the noble-hearted Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville), who informs the eldest of his three daughters, the strong-willed Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery), early in season one that he is not Downton’s owner but its custodian. It’s a conversation that eerily echoes the moment in “Gone With the Wind” when Scarlett O’Hara’s father tells her that Tara is the only thing that matters.

“I have given my life to Downton,” he says in the series. “I can claim no career beyond the nurture of this house and this estate. It is my third parent and my fourth child. Do I care about it? Yes. I do care.”

It was to save Downton that Lord Robert entered into an ultimately happy arranged marriage with Cora, a rich American heiress (Elizabeth McGovern). It is to secure Downton that he refuses to fight the entail – that bane of Jane Austen heroines – which requires him to leave both the estate and Cora’s fortune to his closest male relative, the solicitor Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens), rather than his three daughters. (As all Downtonians know, this, too, turns out to be felicitous when after much travail, cousin Matthew and Lady Mary happily wed at the beginning of season three.) And it is to safeguard Downton’s future that Lord Robert acquiesces to a modern management style championed by Matthew and Tom Branson (Allen Leech), the former chauffeur and Irish revolutionary who marries daughter No. 3, the loving Lady Sybil (Jessica Brown Findlay).

But Matthew and Tom – both new to the aristocracy – have to yield as well. In a pointed exchange from season three revolving around yet another financial crisis, Lady Mary tells Matthew that if he’s not willing to save Downton, then he’s not with “us.” And that’s the crux of it: The people may serve the house, but the house is its people, not just the family but the servants they employ, the tenant farmers who work the estate and the villagers who take pride in it. This is shelter in its most powerful expression, a community.

The real Downton

If Fellowes were to pen a contemporary “Downton,” you would have to think it would be something like life at the present-day Highclere. The kitchen and servants’ quarters and some of the family bedrooms were actually built and filmed at Ealing Studios in West London.

Situated on 6,000 acres in Hampshire – 1,000 of which are parkland gardens – and remodeled in 1839-42 by Charles Barry with touches of Italian Renaissance Revival, Highclere has a juicy story of its own to tell.

The site, which has been in the Carnarvon family since 1679, was once the medieval home of the Bishops of Winchester. The first earl redid the park in 1774-77, gracing it with Cedars of Lebanon. (Follies dot the property as well.) The third earl rebuilt the house.

But it was the fifth earl, George Herbert, who lent Highclere an air of “Downtonian” drama, marrying a Rothschild heiress to ensure the estate’s survival and in 1922 fund the expedition that unearthed Egyptian Pharaoh Tutankhamun’s tomb. Herbert’s death a year later from an infected mosquito bite in Cairo gave rise to the King Tut curse. According to a PBS documentary on Highclere, his beloved dog back home howled and keeled over at that precise moment. In 1988, 300 Egyptian treasures were discovered at Highclere in a secret passageway.

Luckily, no such drama attends the present Lord and Lady Carnarvon, who are busy playing host to tour groups and weddings when they’re not watching “Downton” on the telly and behind-the-scenes.

Like the Crawleys, they have sheltered their home from the vagaries of time.

“We’re doing OK,” Lady Carnavon told People magazine.

Yes, but would Lady Violet approve?


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