Posts Tagged ‘Julian Fellowes’

I love the ALA Center for the Future of Libraries Read for Later.”  In the most recent issue I took a link to a Wired piece about “bingeing” on books. That to me sounded like a dream weekend, but the article was actually about a publishing format that was hot in the 19th century and is coming back in style: serialized fiction.

Which reminded me that I could download the final chapter of Julian Fellowes’ BelgraviaYes, that Julian Fellowes. His latest project is a 19th century story published 21st century style — via either the website or an app, in weekly installments. I subscribed as soon as I heard about it, which means that for eleven weeks I read a short chapter and then felt a little inconvenienced at being left hanging.

The app itself was seriously annoying — it won’t remember login information, so every week I had to enter it anew, which is problematic both in terms of remembering exactly what strange combo of capitalization, numbers, or characters I’d added to make the password fit the app’s requirements, and typing it all accurately on my iPad, something I always manage to screw up. Also sometimes the latest episode wouldn’t download, or would close while I was reading it.

The book itself is soapier than I would usually enjoy, but coming from the creator of Downton Abbey it’s highly entertaining and filled with historical details. At this point if you buy it I think you’ll get all eleven chapters at once, and if you don’t like eBooks, the print version will be published in early July. The book “opens on the eve of the Battle of Waterloo, 15th June 1815, when the Duchess of Richmond threw a magnificent ball in Brussels for the Duke of Wellington.” From this real event, Fellowes spins a tale of love and betrayal, social aspiration and accomplishment. History and social commentary are the backdrop, but Fellowes’ characters are fictional, and in many ways very modern.

The main characters are the family of a self-made man who made his mark as Wellington’s supplier during the wars with Napoleon and went on to build great houses in London, and the family of his daughter’s love interest, aristocrats whose son was killed at Waterloo. There is plenty of family and social drama, and just plain human nature, and I enjoyed it as a pleasant diversion. I’d love to see a Masterpiece adaptation.

But reading Belgravia affirmed that I don’t love eBooks — I really didn’t even find the “bonus” features like links to information or photos all that engaging. I’m a narrative fan, and I don’t want to “binge” episodes, I want to read an entire novel at whatever speed I choose. But, that’s me. I’m all in favor of reading choices. If serialized fiction engages readers who otherwise don’t believe they have the time or attention span to read a novel, I hope the trend grows. But I’m hoping the print edition of Belgravia does even better than the serialized app, and that publishers use this trend as a hook, but continue to provide those who like to savor rather than binge with novels-in-full, in all formats, including print.


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A Year in the Life of Downton Abbey: Seasonal Celebrations, Traditions, and Recipes is the latest companion book to the television series. Author Jessica Fellowes is the niece of Downton Abbey creator and writer Julian Fellowes, who provided an introduction to the book. After the whirl of activity at home and work in the past few weeks, I found this lavish peek inside Downton Abbey to be a treat.

Fellowes divides the book by month, explaining what an aristocratic family in 1924 Britain would be doing throughout the year. She also provides an insider view of the studios where all the below-stairs and some of the other interior scenes are shot, and describes the props, costumes, and historical detail that go into every scene in Downton Abbey, as well as the people who bring it to life. For each section of the book, Fellowes also provides seasonal recipes inspired by the carefully researched food on the show.

It’s a bit of a hodge podge compared to Jessica Fellowe’s previous companion book, The World of Downton AbbeyThe seasonal layout provides structure but also leads naturally to some repetition, so that in more than one place you read about servants’ leisure time, women’s fashion, modes of transportation and travel, and the exploits of “Bright Young Things,” for example. Still, each section is full of photos and details about the writing, filming and production. Fellowes interviewed cast members and others whose knowledge and recollections shed light on the world of Downton Abbey, and researched period details, which is very interesting. If you enjoy the show, it’s a lovely preview of “series five.”

One warning — the book reveals a bit of what’s in store for viewers this season that while intriguing, might be off-putting to those with an aversion to spoilers. None of what I learned seems to be a major plot point, but some of it I’d rather have discovered as I watched.

Hello and thank you to all my new blog followers.What’s next on bookconscious? I’m excited about two novels in the to-read pile: Fram, by the very talented Steve Himmer, and a fictional account of Caroline Herschel’s life, Double the Stars, based on her letters and notes, by poet Kelley Swain. I hope you’ll keep reading with me.

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You’ve probably heard the northeast was hit by a blizzard on Friday and Saturday. Fortunately we were well supplied here, we never lost power, and I came home from work at the library Thursday night with six books. And I passed a few happy hours with one this afternoon — The World of Dowton Abbey by Jessica Fellowes –after finding out that even powdery snow is pretty freakin’ heavy when you are moving piles of it that are almost thigh deep.

If you’re a Downton fan, this is a delicious book. It’s an interesting, lavishly illustrated introduction to the historical, cultural, and social setting behind the show, as well as the fictional details that make Julian Fellowes’ story come to life on the screen. You’ll learn how Maggie Smith has her hair done as she prepares to play Dowager Countess Violet Grantham, where the “downstairs” scenes are filmed, and how the many period details are created in the costumes and on the set.

Besides being Julian Fellowes’ niece, Jessica Fellowes is a writer and editor and her short, informative essays in each section of the book tell readers everything from the difference between Prime Minister Asquith’s salary and the purchase price of a car in 1914, the percentages of single and married women working at the beginning of the 20th century in Britain, and how many birds were bagged in a three day shooting party at Sandringham in 1905. Also which of the American-heiresses Cora’s character is based on, what the lives of young women serving as WWI nurses were like, and what a typical kitchen maid’s day was like in a house like Downton.

All the details, interesting “behind the scenes” information about how the show is created, actors’ insights into their characters, and gorgeous photos made this a great escape on a snowy day. I definitely indulged my inner costume/set/prop designer. I learned that one lucky assistant art director, Lucy Spofforth, “is in charge of all the graphics — anything that is printed that appears on the programme, from a packet of biscuits to a letter or a painted sign.” Bloody stumps in the battlefield scenes are made from mushrooms, apples, and soft dried fruit stuck together with gelatine.

I’m looking forward to this week’s episode from season 3, but this book made me want to go back and watch the first two seasons of Downton Abbey as well.

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Last week I read Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey by Lady Fiona Carnarvon, who lives with her husband, the 8th Earl of Carnarvon at Highclere Castle, where Downton is filmed. The book is mainly about Almina Wombwell, the heiress who married the 5th Earl of Carnarvon, helping to cancel his debts and put the castle on firm financial ground for future generations, much as Cora, the heiress on Downton, does for Lord Grantham.

Almina wasn’t American but was as wealthy, perhaps wealthier, than the women I read about in To Marry an English Lord. As a society outsider because her uncertain paternity – she was allegedly the illegitimate daughter of Alfred de Rothschild, and her mother, Marie Wombwell was married to a ne’er do well – Almina craved the respectability and social entree a titled marriage would afford her. And her Earl wanted cash, not only to preserve Highclere, but also to fund his expeditions with Howard Carter to Egypt.

Yes that Howard Carter. The 5th Earl of Carnarvon, Almina’s husband, was with Carter when he opened Tutankhamen’s tomb, and had bankrolled Carter’s archaeological work for many years. Although Almina wasn’t there, she rushed to her husband’s side when he fell ill and died shortly after the unsealing of the tomb in 1923, and the current Lady Carnarvon notes in interviews that the entire episode was one of the first international media events. It’s one of the more fanous episodes in Almina’s glamorous life. Another is her hosting the Prince of Wales at Highclere when she was a nineteen year old bride in 1895. She spent over half a million dollars in today’s money on his three day stay, even ordering a custom bed and redecorating a bedroom for the future king.

The sections about the lavish entertaining, along with details about how Highclere was run and what life “downstairs” was like, were interesting for me as a Downton fan. Lady Fiona Carnarvon wrote this biography to help promote the show (which has been a financial boon to the estate), and to highlight the true story of the castle’s conversion to a hospital during World War I. Almina was a strong advocate for quality nursing and like many women in England relished her war work as a way to make a real difference at a time when the country was in a constant state of loss and grief.

I really enjoyed the sections of this book that focus on the war and the relief work. The stories of Almina’s sparing no expense to provide excellent hospital and convalescent care, and of the Dowager Countess of Carnarvon in Alexandria, Egypt (she followed her younger son, Aubrey, who did intelligence and translation work for the British in the Middle East) are tremendous. The Dowager Countess felt the hospital ships were not being managed efficiently, and she did such a good job in reorganizing things that she became harbormaster. That story is so good I wondered why Julian Fellowes didn’t use it — wouldn’t you like to see Maggie Smith commandeering a pilot’s boat?

As a longtime fan of Word War I poetry and Vera Brittain‘s absolutely devastating diaries and memoirs, I find World War I just staggering, and for that, the biography of Almina and Highclere’s role as a war hospital are very interesting reading. The parts about Lord Carnarvon’s Egyptian expeditions and other well known people and historical events are also interesting, and the history of the house itself is wonderful. If you like Downton Abbey, you should enjoy this book as well. There has been some criticism that the book overlooks or whitewashes less desirable aspects of the family’s history, but even if that’s the case, this side of the story makes a good read. It’s not bad writing, and if you understand the perspective of the author, you take with a grain of salt her effusive praise of her predecessor. Besides, Almina was quite a woman. She makes Cora seem pretty wishy washy by comparison, honestly.

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Gail MacColl and Carol McD. Wallace must be fans of Downton Abbey, because their book, To Marry an English Lord: Tales of Wealth and Marriage, Sex and Snobbery has been on all kinds of lists in the press and online about what to read between Downton seasons. The publicity even led to a new edition released last spring which quotes Downton creator Julian Fellowes on the cover.

The Downton connection, to be honest, is why I requested this book on inter-library loan. I’m a Downton Abbey fan, even this year when it’s fashionable to disdain it for being too soap-opera-ish. I love just about anything on Masterpiece Classic, or what my family calls “bonnet shows.” I’m a costume drama nut — in fact, after I took my children to see Harry Potter: the Exhibition and then a couple of years later saw some shows on Broadway I realized what I really am is a costumes, sets, and props nut. Can you imagine how much fun it is to take a script and then design the way it’s going to look on the stage or screen? If I ever decide to start a new career  . . . .

But I digress. To Marry an English Lord is about the period from the late 1800’s through the end of King Edward VII’s brief reign in 1910 when over one hundred American heiresses married into the English aristocracy. Like Lord & Lady Grantham on Downton Abbey, each side got what it wanted: titles for the women (and increased social prestige for their American families) and money for the gentlemen’s shabby or debt-burdened estates. MacColl and Wallace do a great job of telling this story and filling it with interesting historical details about the period on both sides of the Atlantic.

I found the sidebars and sudden interjections of two-page-spread asides a little distracting, though informative. In fact I wondered if the writing was somewhat diminished by the busyness of the design. I love the research and the plethora of details the authors shared, and the way they brought certain characters to life. Alva Vanderbilt for example — I had to admire her chutzpah after reading what MacColl and Wallace had to say about her. The book is richly illustrated, so you can see Alva and many of the other people the authors are describing as well as their dresses, houses, jewels, children and more. I can see what attracted Fellowes, because it’s perfect for a writer who wants to get the details right for a story.

One of the things I found most interesting was the way American women shook up English society a bit, not only with their lavish spending, their style and penchant for entertaining, but also with their modern views. The authors point out that the heiresses weren’t just rich ladies with expensive tastes who shopped and threw extravagant parties. They changed British views about inheritance, control over money, and divorce. They influenced or got involved personally in politics. And they did a lot of good in their adopted country, raising money for various causes as well as preserving a number of great homes.

I was also very intrigued by the way Edward, as Prince of Wales and later as King, had so much to do with the American invasion. This was a part of the story I didn’t know, that he loved America and Americans, especially women. I had no idea that until just before his reign, the U.S. only had a consulate, not a full embassy (his strong personal ties to influential Americans may have been a factor in the upgrade). Nor did I know that he befriended so many of the heiresses, sometimes endorsed various matches and was godfather to many Anglo-American babies.

A very interesting, edifying and entertaining read.

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September’s Mindful Reader column is up on the Concord Monitor** website. Check out my review of Cascade, by Maryanne O’HaraRise by L. Annette BinderThe Adventures of Ed Tuttle, Associate Justice, & Other Stories by Jay WexlerUnderstories by Tim Horvath; and Park Songs: a Poem/Play by David Budbill.

This weekend I read The Uninvited Guests by Sadie Jones  — a very fun romp. The book combines the social wit of Jane Austen with the eccentricity of Alan Bradley (author of the Flavia de Luce mysteries), a dash of Julian Fellowes, and a bit of wild stagecraft Shakespeare could love. In fact, if you’re a Downton Abbey fan pining for season three, this might be a quirky distraction.

The book opens at a crumbling great house, Sterne, in 1912, on the morning of Emerald Torrington’s twentieth birthday. Her mother is preoccupied with her stepfather Edward’s trip to Manchester, where he plans to ask an unpleasant business acquaintance for a loan to save Sterne. As the day unfolds there is a visit from a potential suitor, John, a self-made man who Emerald doesn’t really want but who has plenty of money. A telegram from her childhood best friend, Patience, whose mother has come down with influenza. And news of a terrible train crash on a branch line nearby, resulting in the uninvited guests, who the Torringtons must take in after their ordeal.

The housekeeper, Mrs. Trieves, and Emerald’s mother, Charlotte, are dismayed to find a man they once knew has crashed Emerald’s party, claiming to be the sole first class passenger among the train wreck victims. Everyone can see there is some sort of secret among these three. Meanwhile the eccentric little sister, Imogen, known as Smudge, takes advantage of the chaos to smuggle the family pony, Lady, into her room to sit for a portrait.

Emerald finds herself strangely drawn to her best friend’s brother Ernest, a medical student who has escorted his sister to Sterne in place of his mother, and Clovis finds that Patience, who he used to find annoying, is actually not anymore. As the party takes stranger and stranger turns. The finely dressed guests and hosts (except for Charlotte, who retires to her boudoir to sulk) end up serving the carefully prepared multi-course birthday feast to the train passengers.  They sit in their spoiled finery making a meal of the bits and pieces. And the strange “gentleman” entices them into a humiliating party game.

In the frenzy of emotion and tension that follows, all of the twists of the day resolve themselves and in Shakespearean fashion, many matches are made. The pony is led back downstairs. And in the morning, once the mess is cleared and the uninvited guests are gone (and their nature made clear), Edward returns with news of a strange turn of the family’s affairs.

If I’m being unspecific it’s to save you, dear readers, from a series of spoiled surprises. The Uninvited Guests is such a delightful literary romp that I don’t want to ruin the fun.  Just imagine an Edwardian house party with “dark surprises” as the jacket blurb surmises, plenty of social satire, and a rather arch look at human nature.


** Text if you can’t find it online:

Finding balance

Deb Baker

Monday, October 22, 2012

Cascade, by Massachusetts author Maryanne O’Hara, grew out of three story ideas. O’Hara didn’t really know how the stories might connect but sensed they should. The result is a historical novel that focuses on Desdamona Hart, or Dez. She has come home to Cascade, Mass., in 1935 after art school in Boston and travel in Europe, determined to help her dying, bankrupt father save his Shakespearean playhouse. She marries Asa Spaulding, a pharmacist, who takes them in.

Her father thickens the plot by leaving the theater to Asa. Dez wants to paint and to keep her promises, so for a time she tries to ”have it all” as both a dutiful wife and an artist. She takes portrait commissions to resurrect the theater as her father asked. Anyone who has ever juggled responsibilities while trying to pursue work they love will understand her struggle.

Dez befriends Jacob, an artist and peddler, and their friendship sustains her as she tries to fit back into small town life. Meanwhile Asa is pressuring her to start a family and disapproves of another man spending time with his wife.

And Cascade is under persistent threat from the water authority, which plans to flood the town for a reservoir.

Her postcard series about Cascade’s possible destruction becomes a regular feature in The American Sunday Standard, whose editor invites her to illustrate for the magazine in New York. She and Jacob become the subject of town gossip when a man working on the reservoir plans is found dead on Asa’s land with Jacob’s truck nearby. Dez risks everything to clear his name, and Jacob leaves for New York and a job in a New Deal art program.

In the aftermath of this episode, Dez has to choose – stay with Asa, pursue Jacob, or simply follow her dream of a career in art, regardless of the men in her life. The burden of the playhouse, which she must persuade Asa to move before the town is flooded, weighs heavily. I found myself having nasty thoughts about her father, who appears to have cared more about his theater than his only child.

 O’Hara touches on issues familiar to contemporary readers, such as the conflicts surrounding public works projects and eminent domain, or the painful gossip and bigotry that sometimes plague small towns. She tells a very interesting story about an unsettling time in history as well, during the Depression and the run-up to World War II. And she tells a timeless one too, about a woman working to balance her promises and her passion. I enjoyed each aspect of this atmospheric novel.

Short fiction and a poem / play

I also read three short-story collections and a poem/play: Understories by Tim Horvath, Rise by L. Annette Binder, The Adventures of Ed Tuttle, Association Justice and other Stories by Jay Wexler, and Park Songs by David Budbill.

Horvath is a professor at New Hampshire Institute of Art. The pieces in Understories not only share a philosophical, whimsical, darkly humorous aesthetic, but also seem to come from a world that resembles ours but is riddled with portals into imagined places beyond anything you or I could dream up. I loved the way reading these evocative stories left me feeling slightly off-kilter.

The Conversations, which I read as a satirical poke at the breakdown of civil discourse, and The Understory, about a German botany professor who escapes Hitler’s rise to power, settles in New Hampshire, and loses many of the trees on his land in the 1938 hurricane, are two of my favorites. Horvath doesn’t just tell a story, he gives readers a window into the hearts, minds and souls of his characters.

Binder, a part-time New Hampshire resident, fills Rise with fantastical details: a giant woman who is half-angel and still growing in her 50s, a boy who sees shadow-like halos over the heads of people who will die soon, a child who only speaks dead languages. At the same time, her stories are about everyday realities, such as people dealing with illnesses or struggling to get along. Rise is a book about transcending life’s emotional and psychological turbulence.

Wexler, a law professor at Boston University, has written a zany collection of stories that had me laughing out loud. In one, Henry Clay advises a teen and her mother on college. Another is written as a script for a sitcom pilot about a prison’s death row.

Wexler hits on a number of brilliant ways to skewer government and politics, such as a story about a man filing a ”horn incident report,” and another in which Sonia Sotomayor’s confirmation hearing is conducted by the 1977 Kansas City Royals instead of the Senate Judiciary Committee. The Adventures of Ed Tuttle, Associate Justice is offbeat, absurdist and thought provoking.

Budbill is a Vermont poet and playwright whose work reflects his father’s advice, ”Stick up for the little guy, bud.” Despite its genre-bending, Park Songs: a Poem/Play is a very accessible book about people in a city park on a single day. In addition to R.C. Irwin’s ”absurdist and nostalgic” photographs, traditional blues lyrics complement the dialogue. Budbill’s note to readers suggests that any parts of the book could be staged, that a blues band could act as a Greek chorus, and that ”Let’s Talk” could be its own one-act play. That section features very funny, touching banter between Fred, who is lonely, and Judy, who is reading in the park because she wants to be alone. Budbill captures the essence of human communication – the misunderstandings and connections, hurts and expectations – in one scene on a park bench.

With fall around the corner you can curl up on a cool evening with any of these books and enjoy fictional worlds grounded in very realistic human hopes and struggles.

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