An interview with our favorite storyteller, Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes ahead of the movie launch and his latest book release
Though born to his title, Lord Julian Fellowes lives up to the honor through constant creation. As the maker of Downton Abbey, he brought a world of manners, quips, and elegance back to life. Though he’s also a prolific writer of screenplays (Gosford Park), of books (Snobs, Past Imperfect) and even for musicals (School of Rock), he’ll still admit part of him is surprised by his success: “You think, ‘My God, is this really for me? There must be some mistake!’”
His latest novel, Belgravia, set in the 1840s, was released like many of that era: as a serial - only this time it is online. This allowed the nouveau riche James Trenchard, his wife, Anne, and the Lady Brockenhurst to all scheme, plot and yearn in a new chapter each week.
Belgravia opens with a lovely passage that explains that though the past was different, people were much the same. Is it fair to say that’s one of your main themes?
Yes. I think that’s one of the burdens of my song if you like…. When I was taught history, there was a fashion then for teaching almost as if they were an alien breed. We regarded people in the past as someone from another planet, knowing nothing of our instincts and desires. Whereas, of course, while certain attitudes change - I mean, it’s easy to see colonialism or religious missionaries as being out of sync with our Zeitgeist - nevertheless, when you get to the basic motivations that drive people, I don’t think there is much fundamental difference - particularly once you get to the end of the 18th century. Essentially, modern people and the people then are much the same.
What are the advantages of publishing an episodic novel? Does it change the structure?
I think it changes the structure a little in that, when it’s coming out once a week, each chapter has to be a satisfactory unit in itself, rather like an episode of a television series…but other than that, one’s just always trying to tell a decent yarn, really.
Weren’t you tempted to tweak things after seeing reactions to the early chapters?
Yes, I rather admire Dickens and people for doing that and thinking, “Oh, they like this character and I’m going to puff them up!” I think I’m too neurotic to manage that, really. I have to have the whole thing signed, sealed and delivered before I want anyone to see anything. Because suppose you had a blank? Or you couldn’t get yourself organized, or you were ill? And the thing wasn’t ready to go to publication. The thought gives me palpitations!
The narrative reveals the painful inner conflicts of people with secrets - behind their manners and restraint. Is that why you told this story as a novel?
The omniscient narrator is a fairly established literary type. There’s this voice of fate or God or whatever you call it that knows everything from the start. I quite like that form, because I think it engenders in the reader a kind of security—that you think someone is behind the wheel of the story. Not that I’m equating myself to Emily Bronte—but in Wuthering Heights, Nelly Dean and the original voice of the narrator give you a sense that you’re walking on solid ground right from the start, and eventually you will know everything. I am interested by people’s secrets. I think we all, to an extent, have some secrets, some bits of our life we would rather not read on the front page of the New York Times. That, in itself, I find quite beguiling, because it creates, even in the toughest personalities, areas of vulnerability. This sort of juggling of ones’ secrets is a fascinating part of the layering of human nature.
Maybe that’s why period dramas so appeal to us. They had these dangerous secrets then, and our secrets are all gone, it seems?
Also, we tell them to such an extraordinary degree, of course. Our great grandparents’ generation could keep their secrets. We can’t. Nevertheless, there’s still stuff we don’t tell. We tell everyone that we were abused as children, or people were horrible to us at school, or our siblings were terrible. We tell all that, but there are still elements that we feel undermine the presentation of the person we are trying to be that we don’t tell. And that’s where we’re vulnerable. Those are our Achilles heels, really.
Another of your themes seems to be work. In Belgravia, James tries to tell his disappointing son that work gives life value. It’s a lesson all three Crawley daughters also learned?
I think a life without purpose - you often hear people nowadays say, "Oh, he doesn't need to work," meaning he or she is rich, but this was not thought in the 16th or 17th century. We were governed by people who weren't paid a penny. The parliament was full of people who had no salary, or the ambassadors took their own costs. That was true in early America, too.
The idea that you only work if you need money, so you can feed yourself is, in fact, quite modern. The idea then was that anyone with education and responsibility had a duty to work. All of those governments across Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries were entirely run by people with no salary at all. I feel we're in danger of losing that, that you only work in order to buy things and pay bills. I do believe, looking at friends of ours who are rich, born rich, that the happy ones find a task and work at it and make a success of it. Whether it's running their own estate, making it a proper business-like proposition…whatever the task is, it doesn't really matter very much, as long as it absorbs them. It takes their thinking and occupies their waking hours. Then the rest, when you have it, and then holidays, when you have them, have some meaning and they're very enjoyable. If your whole life is a holiday, then I think it doesn't have any meaning and your life isn't very enjoyable.
Do you do a lot of research? Or is it just your whole life has been filled with research?
It’s rather a lifetime of research. I’ve always been interested in history and I’ve always been interested in social and domestic history. My history is not only the battles and the acts of Parliament one is taught at school, but I’ve always been interested in the mechanics of how people live in different societies and in different periods. But I also do research on the period that I’m writing.
In this case, the novel starts at the Duchess of Richmond’s Ball [in 1815 on the brink of the Battle of Waterloo], and then jumps forward 26 years to 1841. Then I would look up what happened in 1841, in 1842. You find all sorts of things, like the botanical gardens opening and the first edition of Punch being published - whatever it is. And I try and drop that stuff in, just to give a sense of life going on around the characters, of the world moving forward: This is happening. This is what they were gossiping about. It adds an underpinning of reality to the events that your fictional characters are taking part in.
Yes, I was amazed by all that world-building. Seemed like a ton of work?
Oh! Well, …thank you. [Laughs] I mean, that’s what I’m trying to do, is to create a sense that you’ve gone into a world that is complete, a world that was happening and was real. There was an extraordinary dynamism of that time, when essentially England, but really Europe, was turning from the 18th century into the modern world in many ways. They were making discoveries. The arrival of the railways through the 1830s and 40’s changed everything, just as flight would change everything for us after the Second World War. I like to give the audience that sense that things were changing. The mere fact it’s called Belgravia. Belgravia was one of the most successful urban developments in the history of the world.
Lord Westminster pointed at the swampy fields and just said, “Build me a city of the rich.” Usually, that doesn’t work…but in this instance, he gauged correctly that London has always moved west. As the water tables ran out, they always moved west. That was the time for a big new area of the rich, of the elite. The market would sustain it. And so this enormous area of Belgrave Square, Eaton Square, and Chester Square, all of these vast developments, were put into action over the space of only a few years, and it worked! Not just the new rich, but the old rich. Everyone moved there. It was brilliantly thought out. It had smaller mews to take the carriages. It had smaller side streets to take the majordomos and the management, and then it had lines of palaces for the rich it was trying to net. That, in itself, is an extraordinary development. That is at the heart of the novel, really.
So many different people of wealth and different classes all put together in such a tight space—so different from, say, Downton Abbey?
Oh, sure. Well, Downton Abbey is exploring that whole thing of being a local king in the rural economy at the end of the 19th century, or at least the remains of it, then having to face the winds of change. That’s really what that was about.
No one writes the barbs and verbal fencing of the upper class like you. The scenes in Belgravia between Anne and Carolyn: What makes them so tense, cringe-worthy and delicious all at once?
I suppose I like to write about a game with high stakes, and a lot of that was high stakes. People trying to get in, and so often, the people who were trying to get in are much more intelligent, much more innovative, much more interesting, much more talented than the people that were already inside. That is the irony of the parvenu versus old money—that usually the parvenu has made his or her fortune because they have something special, whereas so many of the people that were born into the position have nothing special particularly. They know the rules. They know how to behave because that’s how they were brought up, but they don’t have a particularly special component. Yet they are in this weird position of being able to look down on these genuinely innovative and brilliant minds. There’s something about all that, that rather appeals to my sense of irony.
And these innovative minds break into society - which is a new country, really - like immigrants, but then they don't connect to their own children, who were raised in the new land. Feel disconnected to them, like James does with Oliver?
Well, I think one of the ironies is that even nationally when you make the decision to go and live in another country, to marry a French woman and go live in France, as my brother did, or to marry an American woman and come and live in America, as plenty of people do, the thing you have to face, and most people don’t, is that their children will be of a different nationality from themselves. When you come over as an English actor in 2000, by the time you get to 2016 and your kids have grown up, they're American. They're not English, as you were. One of the ironies in social climbing is that if you are successful, your children will ultimately belong to a different class from yours. There is something sad in that this was your ambition, yet if you achieve it, you have in a sense alienated yourself from your own children. All of that ... Again, irony. That game, I find it very interesting.
It was rather like Cora in Downton. Cora has perpetually to address the fact that her children do not share her own values. She has essentially the values of a young American woman in the 1880s, who were considerably advanced ahead of their English counterparts, but her daughters don't share her liberalism and her different views of the role of women and so on. Although as the century progressed, in fact, it came towards Cora and away from the old values of Violet. To some extent, her daughters had to get moving.
Can we ask about The Gilded Age?
Sure! Gilded Age is going to be about—I mean, it’s going to be a family saga with the family and their servants, blah, blah, blah—my usual stamping ground—but in the background is going to be that very curious time in American history, which I find very interesting. After the Civil War, these enormous fortunes were being generated in copper, gas and shipping, and, of course, railways. Above all, railways. These vast fortunes appeared, and the families arrived in New York, hoping to have a muscular domination of it, but they were faced with the old leaders, who were largely drawn from the descendants of the Dutch and English families—you know, gentry families that had originally arrived.
They were a very decorous group compared to the newcomers, and they lived in attractive, but not particularly show off-y houses in Washington Square and places. But these newcomers started to build palaces up Fifth Avenue, and these two groups fought it out….
Over the next 20 years, Caroline Astor, being the ringmaster, decided who was in and who was out. She managed, for instance, to keep Jay Gould out, who is really one of the richest and most successful men that has ever existed. But because she regarded his methods as ruthless and essentially vulgar, he was not allowed into high society.
Now that would be hard to believe, because if someone is rich enough, to a certain extent, they are in just by virtue of their fortune. There were still rules that had to be overcome in those days, and she managed it. They were the performing ponies. I thought that kind of almost replay of the Civil War on a different battlefield was a rather fun background for a saga series.
You’ve said you were glad you won the Oscar for Gosford Park at age 52 - glad success didn’t come too early?
In a way, I wish it had come when I was 6, but I think that what I meant was that when things happen to you, later on, you go less mad…. I think it’s very hard when you make it in your 20s to realize that it can ever come to an end. It’s as if Zeus had leaned down and cupped you in the palm of his hand and was going to carry you through to the grave, but of course, that isn’t so. You have a time, and at the end of that time, you’re finished with: The public has had enough of you and it’s someone else’s turn. If it comes late, you’re able to deal with that more easily, really—more philosophically than earlier on.
I read an interview once in which you mentioned that you "smelled different" after marrying. I feel like you create profound changes in your characters after they settle down and have children?
I think children do change you, I mean, there are certain elements of all our lives that change us. I think, for me, somehow, when I got married, I was much happier. I mean, at the most basic level, I was just happier. I was happier in my life. When you're happy, you're not desperate, and when you're not desperate, you don't make people uncomfortable. I think I wanted everything too much before. There was something slightly uncomfortable about me, really, looking back, that was soothed. I was married to a very beautiful woman, we had a son straight after, nine months later. Just all that was very enjoyable and pleasant, a very nice time in my life, and I think, as a result, I was calmer. I would go up for jobs, and I was calm. And I would get it. It was as simple as that, really.
* Originally published in 2018.