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Now that Julian Fellowes’ “Downton Abbey” has gone from Sunday-night entertainment into cultural lexicon, his niece Jessica is ensuring devotees don’t wander.
That seems unlikely, considering nearly eight million Americans tuned in for the first episode of season three on Jan. 6. Nonetheless, she has penned two companion books, “The World of Downton Abbey” and “The Chronicles of Downton Abbey,” to keep fans up to speed about the aristocratic Crawleys and their loyal servants. An established writer and editor in her own right, even she has been floored that nearly 500,000 copies of her books are in print. “I always say that I am hitching a ride on the ‘Downton Abbey’ train and it’s a very nice trip to be on,” she said. “You never [would] dare to hope that it would be as successful as it has been. To be on The New York Times best-seller list…it just seems you would have to be too full of yourself to think you are going to do that.”
While the third season is done and dusted in the U.K., Americans are just tuning in again to see what is underfoot with The Earl of Grantham and his kin at Highclere Castle. Stateside, beyond the viewing parties that have caught on, 110 PBS affiliates hosted their own Downton Abbey-esque events in recent months to welcome the return of Edwardian drama. The younger Fellowes will soon be making the rounds speaking at private events about that period’s social history. “The funniest thing is people will tell me they don’t want to know what happens and yet they constantly ask me what I can tell them about what happened in season three,” she said with a laugh.
And there are plenty of questions to be asked, since more than 120 million viewers around the globe have tuned into “Downton Abbey” at some point, based on ratings drawn from NBC Universal’s international client broadcasters.
“The show is very beautiful and lavish, but their world is becoming more difficult. It is really the beginning of modern society,” Fellowes said. “This is not Jane Austen, where people are traipsing around with candles and on horseback. There are problems with war and money, and that feels close to us.”
As for the public’s unwavering interest, Fellowes said, “What’s great is there are a lot of characters who are each given equal weight — men and women above stairs and below stairs. My uncle makes sure each is treated with the same amount of attention and care. You are going to find someone in that mix who reminds you of yourself or someone you know or who somehow moved you.”
However true to the times that the cast’s costumes are, their authenticity has its limits. “The beautiful clothes are meant to be absolutely authentic, but they are meant to appeal to the modern eye. There are not layers and layers of fancy stuff going on. The clothes in the Twenties started to have very clean lines and were all about beautiful fabrics,” Fellowes said. “Viewers will notice the Crawley women will have only three evening dresses and they will wear them more than once. And in the second season, Edith wore a jacket that had been her best in the first season, when she drove the tractor on the farm. It is really good for us to watch how wardrobes were watered down. For us in modern times, these things are good to see because we can’t fritter away our money buying things.”
PBS seems to have taken a liking to the fashion scene. Ralph Lauren remains a Masterpiece Classic sponsor. And in late March, Jeremy Piven will debut in a new series, “Mr. Selfridge,” about the American-born, British-bred retail titan Harry Gordon Selfridge. Julian Fellowes, meanwhile, is busy writing “The Gilded Age” pilot for NBC, and his niece is putting the finishing touches on a literary collaboration with Belstaff. Without giving away the story line, she said her short fictional pieces will reference the same time period as “Downton Abbey” and they will be posted online in the next few months. (The prolific mother of one and stepmother of two has another book out now: “Build a Business From Your Kitchen Table.”)
And while designers clamor to dress the elder Fellowes and Downton Abbey-ers for Sunday’s Golden Globes, Jessica Fellowes has thus far missed out on any fashion graft. “I would love that. Yes, please,” she said.