When I began writing The Ambassador's Daughter, a novel set in Europe after the First World War, I had never heard of Downton Abbey. Rave mentions of the ITV/PBS series began creeping up with increasing frequency on my Facebook and Twitter feeds and so I decided to check it out. Like many of you, I was instantly captivated by the trials and tribulations of the Crawley family as they navigate life before, during and after the First World War. But as a writer, my admiration for Downton runs a little deeper (and not just because it has reinvigorated interest in the era in which my latest book is set!) Here are just a few of the reasons I adore the show:
It illuminates a new era. Many movies and books have centered on the World War II. But the Great War, a fascinating period of world upheaval and sweeping social change, is lesser known. Downton is not a political series; it is about the Crawley family and their lives, how they grow and relate to one another. But the writers have managed to capture the era -- social boundaries being broken, women taking on unprecedented roles. In The Ambassador's Daughter, my heroine Margot similarly finds herself on the edge of the changing world as she attends the Paris Peace Conference with her father, and wonders what her role will be in the new order.
It draws us in. Downton excels at drawing the reader in, using what we writers call "bridging conflict" -- an incident or event that sets the stage for the larger story. At the opening of the first season of Downton, the Titanic has sunk, taking with it the Downton heir and putting their home and futures in jeopardy. Instantly we are captivated. In The Ambassador's Daughter, Margot spots a woman fleeing President Wilson's arrival in Paris. Her chance encounter with the woman, pianist Krysia Smok and the famed artists of Montparnasse will irreparably change -- and jeopardize Margot's life.
It makes us like the unlikeable. It would be easier if Mary Crawley, the eldest sister on Downton, were warm and likeable. She isn't. She's cold; she didn't love her fiancé and she doesn't pretend otherwise. But as the series unfolds, we find ourselves liking and rooting for Mary. In my book, Margot is hesitant to return to her fiancé, a soldier who was gravely wounded during the war, which may make her less than sympathetic at the outset. One of the great challenges as a writer is explaining complex individuals and the choices they make, but I find it very rewarding -- hopefully readers will agree!
It makes us root for the lovers. Downton has teased us by keeping Mary and Matthew apart with war, injury, scandal, other love interests and her resentment that he is now heir. At the end of season two, they are engaged and seem poised for bliss -- but I wouldn't be so sure! My own super couple, a German official who will become a Nazi and the otherwise-engaged Margot, also face seemingly impossible obstacles to happiness. But I rooted for them and I think readers will too.
It makes the shocking believable. Downton appears to be a stately BBC series, but it is far from ho-hum. The creators like to throw curve balls -- little ones like the stately butler with a tawdry past career in the theater, big ones like the foreigner who dies in Mary's bed during a forbidden encounter. Really shocking things that keep viewers on the edge of their seats, but done plausibly. No spoilers here, but The Ambassador's Daughter has a few shockers waiting...
There are a dozen other reasons to like the show, and I'd love to hear from you: What makes Downton so great, and what books have you read that had similar qualities? When Downton returns January 6, I will be at the ready with my popcorn. And when The Ambassador's Daughter comes out January 29, I hope you will be too!