In 2002, screenwriter Julian Fellowes won an Oscar for his English country house mystery, Gosford Park. A man of many hats, Fellowes is also an actor, film director, novelist, and political activist and he was recently elevated by Queen Elizabeth II to Parliament's House of Lords, making him Lord Fellowes.
In Gosford Park, Julian Fellowes proved that an English country estate can't be beat for spellbinding drama played out in the lives of masters and servants. His hit series Downton Abbey also mines this rich vein of passion, nobility, treachery, and looming change — this time in the years just before World War I. Fellowes talked with Masterpiece's Richard Maurer in December, 2010.
Select a topic from the list below to see Fellowes's thoughts, or choose Show All to see the entire interview.
Could you explain the inheritance problem at the heart of Downton Abbey?
There are two separate elements, really. One is the fact that the whole estate is entailed to the title, which was quite common. It's now rather gone, but it meant that you would never have the title, essentially, impoverished; the house and the estate were always going to go to whoever inherited the title. But what complicates matters for the Crawley family is that when the estate was in a bad way, and this was all before the show starts, Robert married an American heiress, Cora. Robert's father made a deed of transference with Cora so that her money is locked up in the estate. When he did this, he assumed that Robert and Cora would have a son and the son would inherit the title, the estate, and her money. The deed of transference was only to stop her divorcing Robert and taking off with the money. But of course what's happened is they haven't had a son. So now there is this idiotic situation whereby not only do all the lands and the house go to Robert's distant cousin, but also Cora's money.
This issue must have come up from time to time in history.
Oh, Absolutely! People forget that there were something like 350 American heiresses married into the British upper classes during the 1890s and the 1900s. They rescued countless families from collapse. But what couldn't be allowed was for the woman to divorce and take her money. This issue arose after the 1870s because Parliament passed the Married Women's Property Act, which meant that a woman could retain ownership of her own property after marriage. Before that, when a man married a woman, her property became his. What the new law meant was that there was suddenly a danger that these heiresses would come in and put everything right, and then suddenly turn around, get a divorce, and ask for their money to be extracted from the estate, which would almost invariably lead to its collapse.
Why was America suddenly exporting its heiresses?
What happened was that although America had a perfectly established upper class, with families making increasing amounts of money as the century wore on, they never embraced primogenitor. When a man was rich in America, he made all his children rich — not just all his sons, but all his children. That meant there were a lot of American heiresses. But British heiresses were very rare because practically all of a woman's male relatives had to be dead before she would inherit anything very substantial. In America, a lot of these very new fortunes found that they couldn't get their daughters into top society in Cincinnati, Philadelphia, or wherever because there were rules keeping them out. But if they came over to Europe, nobody could tell the difference between one American and another. So whether you were a Winthrop or someone whose father had made his money three months ago didn't matter.
What were these young Americans like?
These girls had not been brought up in the stiff and corseted ways of England. They were very free and easy, but not in the least immoral — far from it actually. They talked to everyone, they spoke to men they didn't know, they were lively at dinner parties. Of course, this was terribly attractive. The Prince of Wales, who later became Edward VII, adored American women. And so they became fashionable. They also were perceived as being the answer to an economic crisis. There was a big agricultural depression here that lasted from the beginning of the 1880s more or less until the First World War. Everyone who owned land saw their income go down, and suddenly here were these girls who were all healthy and talkative and fun. And they were also rich! So they were snapped up.
Did they loosen up English society in a permanent way?
They were the first people who really started to tell the upper classes how uncomfortable their houses were. The idea that you should have a bathroom for every bedroom, the idea that there should be heating — all of this really started with the American girls. Not everyone took to it, as I can testify because even still in the sixties houses were very uncomfortable. But that was the beginning of a drive towards comfort. They were also much more interested in food than the English had been. And they had an influence on manners. The idea that society should be free, not in any democratic or revolutionary sense, but in the freedom to chat, or mix different people together, or have more relaxation in the business of the London season — I think they did have an effect on that.
Did you grow up in a setting like Downton Abbey?
No, I didn't. I was a poor relation, so I was always the unimportant member of the house party. When I was young, there was still a debutante season, which is gone now. If you'd got onto the list of men for that, then you were asked to a lot of the dances and balls in the country. I did see it a bit, but I was nobody. I sometimes think being a minor figure gives you a better viewpoint than being a major one. When you're a major one, everyone makes a fuss over you and laughs at your jokes. I didn't have that at all.
Judging from Gosford Park and now Downton Abbey, you were fascinated with the scene.
Yes, I did get into it. I was there during the season of 1968 and a little bit of '69. I sensed that I was seeing the end of something — the last notes of the pre-war world. The sixties was a kind of Janus period of facing both ways. In one way, it was looking forward to the world that overtook us in the 1970s — of Woodstock and dope and all the rest of it. But in another way, it was only just after the 1950s, which was women wearing hats and gloves and no divorced people being allowed into the royal enclosure. It was a funny period, really.
Could you talk about the big themes in Downton Abbey? One seems to be authenticity — who does and does not belong.
You're right. I am rather interested in the insider/outsider. I said in one of my novels, if you leave three Englishmen in a room they'll invent a rule that prevents a fourth from joining them. There is something about the club mentality, when everyone makes rules and special languages and trip wires to protect themselves, that I find very interesting. Another big theme is the transition to the world we know today. We quite deliberately chose a period just before the First World War, when ostensibly this is the old world in which everything is very ordered and everyone knows their place; but in another way, it's on the brink of the modern world. These people are riding in cars and catching trains and making telephone calls and receiving telegrams; and women's rights and trade union rights are starting to disrupt the old order. It's a world that the modern audience can understand. We're not asking them to go to a distant planet.
Were there domains in the house where the butler had no authority, such as in the kitchen or over the lady's maid or valet?
It's a little bit more complicated than that. Almost everything done in the house was ultimately under the butler's control. He had a relationship with his employers that was what we would think of as senior management. No one would talk to their butler without proper respect, and even a lady's maid or a valet would not be cheeky to a butler. But that said, the housekeeper was head of the female staff; the cook was head of the kitchen staff; and ladies' maids and valets were always slightly jokers in the pack. Although technically they were not senior to the housekeeper or the butler, nevertheless they had a relationship with the employer that was probably the closest of all. When you're being dressed by a man, day in and day out, and he's scrubbing your back in the bath, or helping you into your long johns, you obviously have quite an intimate conversational friendship with him. And that gave valets a kind of power that made the other servants nervous of them, because they could influence the employers — and relentlessly did in some cases. The same goes for ladies' maids. So it's slightly difficult to say whether the butler was senior to these personal servants; because although technically he was, nevertheless no butler who knew anything about it would make an enemy of the valet.
Could you give us the fictional backstory of the house in Downton Abbey, which I assume was originally church property?
As you know, in the Reformation Henry VIII took all the church lands away from the Catholic church and booted out the priests. Then these houses were given to favorites or sold to people who wanted to establish their families as landed families. Interestingly enough, the house we filmed in, Highclere Castle, was originally an abbey. The house has been remodeled and remodeled, first by the Georgians and then in the early years of Victoria's reign as a gothic masterpiece by the architect Sir Charles Barry. My assumption is that either the Crawleys were rewarded Downton at the Reformation, or possibly as is the case with the Herberts, which is the family at Highclere, they married the heiress to the estate at some later time and it's been in their family ever since. Of course, it's had one or two dangerous times, one of them in the 1880s when Robert married the young Cora from America and set things right with her money.
Was this country-house style of living a peculiarly English thing?
All the aristocracies, with the exception of the American aristocracy, are I think land-based. That said, where the English are not unique but quite unusual is that they liked to spend a lot of time in their houses on their estates. In some countries, like France in the old days, the estates were there to generate income, but the aristocrats didn't go there all that much except to hunt. It wasn't uncommon for English aristocrats to essentially live on their estates for most of the year, and maybe go up to London for a month in the season, particularly if their daughters were of marriageable age. The English are closer to the land that they own, and that's always been the case. And indeed in the 18th century people would make fun of us for it. We were seen as Farmer Giles, with straw coming out of our hair.
Are there any little details of etiquette from this period that you wish would be revived?
[Laughs] Well, I think that thing of being polite, of making people easy in your company, of not burdening them with your troubles; that's quite nice, to be honest. These days, we always pour everything out...
Even the English?
The English less than the Americans, but far more than we once did. Formality has had a very bad press lately, but formality is quite refreshing when everyone knows what they're supposed to be doing. We live in the age where it says on the invitation, casual chic. What does that mean? Back then, they knew what they were supposed to wear; they knew what they were supposed to do — that during the first course of the dinner you talk in one direction, set by the hostess; during the second course you talk in the other direction; and by the time it comes to the pudding, you can please yourself. Many people would now find that very artificial, but what it means is that nobody gets left out. How many times have you been to a dinner these days and one guy or one woman is just sitting there and nobody's talking to them? That didn't happen. A lot of these rules that people think were silly, they did have a point.
You have a devilish way of frustrating our plot expectations. Did you do this in the interest of realism, since life is never like it's portrayed in Jane Austen?
Very few people's lives are what they expected them to be. They may be better and they may be worse, but they'll be different. I do feel that one shouldn't automatically provide the inevitable. Having said that, I find that when you start to write these characters, you do get very much taken up by them and you want things to come right for them. But you can't have everything come right too soon, because then it's all resolved; and when it's all resolved, it's finished in a way.
Congratulations on being made a peer. Does this mean any changes in your life?
It means that my life will have a political dimension because I will be in the House of Lords, which is one of the two houses of Parliament. I've always been interested in politics, and now I am in the very comfortable position of being able to have not a loud voice, but certainly a ringside seat to the political decisions being made; and that interests me very much. I don't think it will alter my life in any other way.
As a peer, how should you be addressed?
I am going to be Lord Fellowes of West Stafford. I would be called Lord Fellowes, if someone was talking to me.
Suppose this had happened a hundred years ago. Would that have made you eligible to marry one of the Crawley daughters?
[Laughs] Perhaps I'm eligible anyway! One of the great strengths of the British upper classes is that they have always been pragmatic. When someone new made a lot of money and became very important, they didn't turn up their noses at him, as they did in some countries on the continent. On they whole, they embraced him. He would be given a baronetcy or a barony, and his daughter would be married by Lord Thing or his son would marry Lord Thing's daughter or whatever; and he would be swept into the fold. In the greatest families in the land, you will find that this wife wasn't particularly aristocratic, but she had a lot of money; or this one was very beautiful; or this one was the daughter of someone who was very important politically but not particularly significant socially; and so on. We're not like the Germans, where your wife had to have the same amount of quarterings on her shield as you did. The British never really cared much about all that. They wanted to stay in the swim. And when you stay in the swim, that means embracing the new just as much as protecting the old.
Can you give us any hints about season two of Downton Abbey?
Since we end on the declaration of the First World War, I don't think I'm giving too much away to say that war casts its shadow over Downton. Of course, that means every young and able-bodied man is under threat. But more than that, I will not say.