The Downton effect
Julian Fellowes is best known as the creator of Downton Abbey. His new novel Belgravia is partially set at Montacute House, where Anna Lea joined him to talk about what inspired his latest work.
Downton Abbey was set during an exciting time in history and kept viewers hooked with each episode. Is Belgravia similar?
Belgravia will be first published in installments, a very popular Victorian practice, with the Prologue and 10 weekly chapters released on an immersive app, each ending with a cliffhanger. I wanted to start the novel with a very famous social event. I chose the Duchess of Richmond’s ball in 1815, which was held in Brussels, where some of the Allied troops fighting Napoleon were encamped. Napoleon was marching from Paris, and by the night of the ball he was on the doorstep. Many of the guests at the ball were young officers, so they had to leave at once to go to their regiments. They fought the battle of Quatre Bras the next day, which turned into Waterloo, and a great many of them were killed. So you have this tragic moment where several of the young officers found dead on the field were still in their parade uniform, their evening dress, for the Duchess’s ball.
What do you find so compelling about the 19th century?
It was a period of tremendous social change. There were huge advances in all areas – everything was changing – and new fortunes meant that new people were entering high society. Half the peerage dates from this time, but they preferred it to be veiled in historic charm, as if it were all part of ‘good old England’. It seemed a good setting for the novel, which in one sense is about the rivalry between the new and the established order. Everyone is tussling away to get control of their lives; that’s what novels are about.
Several settings in Belgravia are based on National Trust places – why?
The Brockenhurst family home is based on Attingham in Shropshire. Attingham is a self-conscious statement of social importance, with the fashion of the great porticos, the great drawing rooms. It’s very charming and light-hearted but still grandiloquent and a little self-important. It is a proclamation of the importance of the family. The Trenchard family estate is based on Montacute, in Somerset, which is more a proclamation of the enduring qualities of a family.
What particularly inspired you about Montacute?
One of the reasons that Montacute is emotionally powerful is precisely because the Phelips family, who built the house and lived here for over 300 years, were not giant stars of their day. Had they been, they probably would have greatly altered the house. Instead, very little has been changed, so Montacute has never lost touch with its roots. You can still see the original, early Elizabethan house. I think there is something about those enduring values that survive so much – civil war, both world wars – and somehow here they still are, with the sun dappling the hall floor. Those values, and the very presence of the house, give one a sense that we all belong to a kind of continuum if we so choose.
What role do you think the National Trust has to play in looking after places like Montacute and Attingham?
I think it has a very important part to play. In the early 20th century, the Trust recognised that the natural caretakers of these buildings – over many centuries before then – had been the landed classes who were on the brink of losing their social muscle, their political power, and, not to put too fine a point on it, their money. The Trust worked with the private owners because together these two groups had to hold the line for all this during those very difficult years. They have brought a big, very emotive part of Britain’s heritage through to the present day. I think the British are very aware of the country-house culture now and what they have to gain from it. One of the developments in recent years, and I would like to think I’m part of that with Downton, is that people are aware that their forebears are involved in the country-house tradition because they were the people who ran them. The Trust has responded by displaying the kitchens, the servants’ hall and so on – which the public want to see.
This article originally appeared in our members' magazine