Did you use any personal story for the book ?
Not my personal stories so much but some from the Fellowes family, which is mine too of course. Julian, my uncle, is the creator and writer of the show, and like any writer he looked to his own life for inspiration. So many of the characters and their plots, or even just their witty one-liners, came from family stories – such as the Dowager Countess, who is based on Julian’s great-aunt, Isie Stephenson. The rest of it comes from history itself, a huge interest of Julian’s. He was keen that the show should be steeped in authenticity, which is why we have the wonderful juxtaposition of fictional characters dealing with events that actually happened in history – such as the Troubles in Ireland and World War I.
Did you enjoy going to set ?
Yes, it’s a real privilege and not one I pass up on! It’s a treat to watch something right before your eyes and know that it will be screened on televisions to millions of people around the world. They are all consummate professionals but also clearly hugely enjoy their work, so have a lot of fun together. The only problem is that there are so many crew – around 60 or 70 at least, daily – that an extra person like me can feel a bit in the way. I say ‘sorry, excuse me!’ quite frequently…
Do you feel close to the characters of the époque ?
Julian and I have always shared an interest in that period between the wars – partly, I think, because so many of our family stories come from then. Julian’s father, my grandfather, was born in 1912, the year the first Downton Abbey episode was set – so he was certainly in that era, if not quite in that world. But we are fascinated by it too because it was, in many ways, the beginning of the modern age – with electricity, motorcars, rail travel, the rise of socialism, women’s rights, medical advances and so on – yet those who lived within it were still heavily influenced by Victorian mores. They struggled to adapt but knew they had to if they wished to survive. That’s the basic premise of Downton Abbey and the reason it is so compelling – we are going through something very similar ourselves, with the huge advances in technology impacting on our social and political lives.
Something you still use in the kitchen and you inherited.
I still use my grandmother’s cookbooks, although it’s interesting to see how fashions change with food – right now, quite rapidly, as we get into ‘clean eating’ and so on. But if you look at cookbooks of a hundred years ago, they are very similar to modern cooking, in terms of low sugar, fresh ingredients and so on. One thing that is very different is that in England at the turn of the 20th century, French cooking was the most fashionable, and a lot of it was rather fiddly and highly skilled. Mrs Patmore may look like a simple cook but she was actually a chef of supreme ability!
Your favorite receipt in the book. Do you cook often?
My son is a huge fan of pancakes, so at the weekends the book will fall open at that page! But I love the more traditional receipts too, such as the marmalade. My father lives in Ireland, and I have been spending summers there every year since I was a little girl, so when I’m feeling nostalgic I’ll do a big Irish stew, with slices of warm soda bread on the side to mop up the gravy. Delicious!
It was a difficult research for the book ?
The research is, for me, the most enjoyable part of the process. As it was my third Downton Abbey companion book, a lot of the research had built up in layers – on my bookshelves and in my head. Even when not officially researching a Downton book, I still read around the period, particularly memoirs of that time, as I prefer to read a first-hand account to a historian’s analysis. Julian also has a huge amount of knowledge, so if I got stuck on anything, I’d just fire off a quick email to ask him.
Do you think the success of Downton Abbey will bring more politeness and elegance in the world?
It would be nice to think so, wouldn’t it? Perhaps it does – people seem to appreciate the elegance and style of the period. Whether nice people watch it or it makes people nice, I don’t know. But I interviewed the woman who lives in a house that is used for filming – as the exterior of Isobel Crawley’s house – and she was telling me that people frequently knock on the door, peer over her garden wall and so on. ‘Don’t you mind?’ I asked her. ‘Oh, no,’ she said, ‘the sort of people who like Downton Abbey are usually very nice people.’