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The Forgotten Inspiration behind Downton Abbey

29th Nov 2013

The Forgotten Inspiration behind Downton Abbey
Now Downton’s over (until Christmas, at least), let’s take a look at how Julian Fellowes came up with the worldwide phenomenon, with the help of a forgotten writer from Lincolnshire.

Written as recently as 1980, The Shooting Party by Isabel Colegate tells the story of 24 hours in the lives of members of the landed gentry and their servants before the outbreak of World War I.

Sir Randolph Nettleby invites friends, acquaintances, and prospective husbands for his daughter to all while away the time shooting game on his estate.

Colegate shows the blossoming of love between those already promised to another, the gradual decline in the power of the country gentleman, and hints of differing politics rearing their heads at a crucial point in history. Oh, and there’s a character called Carson. This all may sound a little familiar.

ITV’s favourite export Downton Abbey is set at the same point in history, and addresses many of the same themes. The similarity cannot be lost on the show’s creator Julian Fellowes; in 2007 he wrote an introduction to a new edition of Colegate’s work.

Though pre-Downton (which unbelievably only aired in 2010), Fellowes does admit The Shooting Party was inspiration for another of his works, the Oscar-winning Gosford Park, writing that, ‘without [The Shooting Party], the seed of the idea behind my script would never have been allowed to germinate’.

It’s interesting, however, that both Colegate and her work seem to have largely been forgotten, despite the fact that The Shooting Party was adapted for the screen in 1985 and starred many of the era’s most popular actors (James Mason, Edward Fox, John Gielgud…). Why is it, then, that so many are unaware of the extent to which Colegate influenced the creation, and continuation, of Downton Abbey?

It seems rather strange, after the large influence Colegate evidently had on Downton Abbey, that few are actually aware of her existenceSome of the similarities between the two works are rather obvious from the start; other than the two Carson’s, both Lord Grantham and Sir Nettleby own Golden Retrievers, and a constant is the struggle for the aristocracy to accept the upper-middle classes and the ‘New Money’.

Audiences also encounter flirtations both between Hungarian Count Rakassyi and the Nettleby’s granddaughter Cicely in The Shooting Party, and between Turkish diplomat Mr Pamuk and the Grantham’s daughter Mary in Downton Abbey.

Then there’s maid Ellen, ‘probably the most uncomplicatedly sympathetic character in the book’, according to Fellowes. She looks after the daughter of the house, much like fan-favourite Anna Bates, uncomplicatedly sympathetic herself, maid to the eldest Grantham daughter.

Mary’s relationship with Matthew Crawley, Downton’s heir, resembles, in part, that of Olivia and Lionel’s; Matthew and Mary are drawn to each other most when they are engaged to others (Lavinia Swire and Sir Richard Carlisle) and it is arguably the moment at Downton’s own shooting party when Matthew is pushed most to act on his feelings for Mary, despite her engagement to another man.

Before this point, Mary and Matthew have been out of synch, each falling in love with the other at the wrong time, and too many obstacles have befallen them (Mr Pamuk’s untimely death, the question of inheritance when Lady Grantham fell pregnant). Now, Matthew, recovered from Lavinia’s death, takes it upon himself to show his affections for Mary.

Similarly, Lionel chooses the shooting party to follow his heart, taking every opportunity to walk with Olivia, discussing literature, writing her letters, and being attentive to her needs, despite her marriage to affable, but unobservant, Bob Lilburn.

Where Downton and The Shooting Party often differ is in the tendency Fellowes has to overly romanticise situations. Mary and Matthew’s flirtation during the shooting party culminates in the dismissal of Sir Richard and a happy engagement, whereas perhaps the more realistic conclusion to Olivia and Lionel’s affair is that Olivia cannot weather the inevitable scandal that would surround them if she were to leave her husband and children, and breaks off the relationship. Only when Lionel dies in the war is her love without shame, and she can express it openly.

Fellowes’ upper-class is equally romanticised, fighting doggedly for survival where similar families disintegrate and disappear. As he himself puts it:
‘[Colegate] neither hates nor worships [the highly privileged] but is simply striving to understand how they could have ruled since the dawn of recorded time and then, in the space of less than half a century, have entirely lost their grip on the political and public life of the Nation.’

Upper-class characters such as Lady Sybil and newcomer Rose, with virtues more associated with the lower-class, act as catalysts to ensure progression and modernisation to come to Downton when history strongly hints that this wouldn’t happen. The divide between classes narrows and audiences find themselves identifying with characters from a range of social backgrounds, whereas Colegate’s work is more of a fictional record of a bygone era and a foray into character study.

It seems rather strange, after the large influence Colegate evidently had on Downton Abbey, that few are actually aware of her existence. It’s a shame that a writer of fourteen works, who wrote for almost half a century, should so easily disappear from public consciousness. It’s particularly regrettable that a new generation of Colegate fans haven’t crawled out of the woodwork due to the world’s Downton fascination.

Just shy of 200 pages, The Shooting Party makes for an absorbing read, drawing audiences into the world of Nettleby Park, asking them not to judge, but only to observe a forgotten way of life – the work of one forgotten author.