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Carol Wallace

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Redeemed by 'Downton Abbey'

Posted: 08/03/2012 12:11 pm

Sometimes I'm embarrassed by how much I know about the English aristocracy. Ranks, titles, country seats, and coronets don't seem like appropriately democratic or contemporary American interests. But we can't always help our obsessions, and sometimes we can even make a living from them. Back in the 1980s my friend Gail MacColl and I spent five years researching and writing To Marry an English Lord, which is about American heiresses who married English aristocrats in the late 19th century. We went to England, spent hours in libraries, interviewed descendants, visited castles. It was heavenly. The book was published in 1989 and stayed in print until 2003, a nice long time for a title about a weird little historical phenomenon.

Naturally, when "Downton Abbey" was aired in the U.S. my friends all told me I should be watching it. Initially, I resisted but of course I was just delaying the inevitable. With its earl and countess, its roster of servants, its country house and carriages, "Downton" was sure to be oh, sorry, just my cup of tea.

So maybe you can imagine how startled I was when I finally settled down to the first episode and Elizabeth McGovern, as Cora Grantham, opened her mouth. Nobody had told me she was American! As I watched that first episode, the discussion of how Mary can't inherit Cora's immense dollar-based dowry was utterly familiar. Cora was one of the girls I'd written about - rich, pretty Americans whose fortunes shored up the finances of over a hundred noble English families.

But I lost track of that fact pretty quickly. The screenwriter Julian Fellowes had obviously done his research but it was the action and the characters that had me hooked right away. And the costumes. And the humor. And, let's face it, the soap-opera pacing. I had to agree with what everyone had been telling me from the start: "Downton Abbey" was pure delight.

Then last September I received a newspaper clipping in the mail from England. My co-author Gail had sent me an article from the UK Daily Telegraph about the making of "Downton Abbey." In it, Julian Fellowes told the reporter that, when he was approached to write a series about an English country house, he had been reading To Marry an English Lord. "'It occurred to me,'" he said in the Telegraph piece, "that while it must have been wonderful for these girls to begin with, what happened 25 years later when they were freezing in a house in Cheshire, aching for Long Island?"

Wasn't that nice? I was so pleased that I boasted about it on Book Group of One, the blog I maintain to justify my 10-book-a-month reading habit. I returned to the subject when the New York Times ran a "Downton Abbey" book list to accompany the U.S. airing of Season Two. Then things got startling. A friend of mine, writer Fred Bernstein, felt that To Marry an English Lord should have been on the New York Times' list of "Downton Abbey" books. Furthermore, he thought that Julian Fellowes ought to write a letter to the newspaper suggesting that amendment.

"Fine," I said. "How lovely. By all means write a note to Julian Fellowes. See if he'll do what you ask." Thinking, "Good luck with that," and wondering, "Where would you send a letter to Julian Fellowes, anyway?"

The next day my husband came home from work with Fellowes' home address, which he'd gotten from a friend he happened to run into on 34th St. That was a little weird.

So Fred Bernstein wrote his letter to Julian Fellowes, put a stamp on it, and put it in a mailbox on a street corner in Brooklyn. Four days later, he received a beautifully cordial email from Fellowes which provided a draft of his letter to the Times. Although I could quote you the whole letter - it is, after all, stuck on my refrigerator door - the sentence I love most is, "So, in a way, Cora Grantham (played by Elizabeth McGovern) was the first character of "Downton" to be imagined, thanks to Ms. MacColl and Ms. Wallace."

There was, I admit, some shrieking, and many phone calls, and a great deal of gloating.

But wait, we're not done yet! Because Fred Bernstein wasn't the only person who read my blog post about that New York Times "Downton Abbey" reading list. Pat Ryan, a reporter for that paper, had been assigned a story about Edith Wharton's New York. Pat called me and we chatted about Wharton, heiresses, Julian Fellowes, and To Marry an English Lord. Her delightful article ran in late January. Our old book was kind of hot again.

Workman Publishing began bustling about to organize a reprint. A lovely new cover was designed and in March, To Marry an English Lord was once again available to the reading public. Sales have been gratifying, and when I do public appearances, the audiences are delighted to get the back story on the Granthams. I have become rather good at explaining entail and primogeniture to Americans.

Back in the 1990s I used to close my lectures with a quotation from the 9th Duke of Marlborough, husband of the most famous heiress, Consuelo Vanderbilt. He summed up the heiress phenomenon by saying that "Europe and its traditions no longer appeal with the same force and vigor to the American feminine mind." It was a nice way to end, formal and final. But I've added one more slide: the cast of "Downton Abbey." Thanks to Julian Fellowes those English lords are back in fashion and my obsession is respectable again.

 
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