When Downton met Wessex: Fellowes on Hardy

Downton Abbey series creator Julian Fellowes on the set at Highclere Castle in Hampshire

Downton Abbey creator and screenwriter Julian Fellowes on the set of Downton Abbey: A New Era - Credit: Ben Blackall / © 2022 Focus Features LLC

With the opening of a blockbuster exhibition Hardy’s Wessex at four museums - Dorset, Poole, Wiltshire and Salisbury - Jess Morency talks to Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes, a life long Thomas Hardy fan, about Hardy’s complex life and loves and how as writers they both create drama around their characters 

There’s a gentle bend on a road in West Dorset where, looking straight ahead, you’ll see a beautiful manor house belonging to one of the most successful screen-writers of this century – and the creator of Downton Abbey. There’s also a signpost to Higher Bockhampton: birthplace of Thomas Hardy (1840 – 1928), the creator of Wessex, and one of the most successful writers of all time.

I wonder, as I drive past the meadows fronting Julian Fellowes’ Grade-I listed house at West Stafford, whether he feels the landscape is infused with the spirit of the revered Dorset author and poet?

‘Of course,’ he tells me once we’re seated in the sunny alcove of his buttercup-yellow drawing room. Luminous oil paintings adorn the walls and the view from the window encompasses an avenue of trees, culminating in a sculpture of a stag.

‘In the 1890s, Thomas Hardy was a regular visitor to this house when it was owned by Gertrude Floyer. I suspect it was a bit of a refuge. He used to sit next door in the morning room (now decorated with the most exquisite chinoiserie wallpaper) looking out at the garden.’

It’s a connection that goes deeper than a shared view. It was Fellowes’ wife, Emma Kitchener-Fellowes, who found Stafford House in 2002. However, it was only after they’d moved in that Fellowes spotted a plaque in the village church during a carol service, bearing the words, ‘Gertrude Floyer, daughter of Reverend Arthur Shirley’. Who, he later discovered, was his great-great aunt.

Julian Fellowes in the gardens of his home in Dorset 

Julian Fellowes in the gardens of his home in Dorset - Credit: @ 2021 Peter Yendell

Would Hardy have been an entertaining guest? ‘I think he’d be an interesting guest, which isn’t quite the same thing,’ he says. ‘I don’t think he’d make you laugh - nor do you get much of a laugh out of his novels. But I think he questioned everything and brought a sharp intelligence to the values of his days, and I’m sure would do the same for ours if he came round for tea.’

Most Read

This summer, the four establishments that make up the Wessex Museums partnership - Dorset Museum, Poole Museum, The Salisbury Museum and Wiltshire Museum – are staging a ‘blockbuster’ exhibition. Hardy’s Wessex: The Landscapes that Inspired a Writer sees each museum focusing on a different theme and featuring a treasure trove of objects that give personal insights into the writer’s life. As Patron of the Wessex Museums Trust and President of the Thomas Hardy Society, Fellowes helped launch a crowdfunding scheme to raise £5,000 to prepare previously unseen Hardy items for public display. It easily exceeded its target.

‘Dorset is a good county for supporting one of its own,’ he says. ‘Some years ago, material from Hardy’s theatrical adaptations came up for sale - miniature theatres with models of the sets, and adaptations of the scripts, covered in his notes. A local man, who lived near Dorchester, more or less bought them for the county and they’re now part of the Hardy Collection. Dorset people like their stars, and Thomas Hardy is one of them.’

Fellowes is pleased that the exhibitions will concentrate on everyday objects. ‘These are not in themselves historical artefacts; they become historical because of their association with a person. I’m as interested at looking at a pair of nail scissors that belonged to Marie Antoinette as I am at looking at a state portrait of her by Élisabeth Vigée Lebrun. These simple objects give you a window into people’s daily lives, and I enjoy that.’

The Hardy family kettle, one of the objects on display at Dorset Museum

One of the personal objects on show in the new Hardy's Wessex exhibition - the Hardy family kettle, much admired by Julian Fellowes - Credit: wessexmuseums.org.uk

I ask, if he was to own an object of Hardy’s what it would be? ‘Actually, I do have one of his books - a first edition. It looks like a perfectly ordinary novel by a working writer, which of course is exactly what it was.’

Is there anything in the exhibitions that he covets? ‘I’ve got a soft spot for the family kettle, because I like the fact that it’s rather pretty. I always like that idea of taking an ordinary household object and making it rather charming.’

What would be in the museum of Baron Fellowes of West Stafford, I wonder? He bats the question away, saying there’d be nothing interesting to see. ‘Just a bald man, sitting at his desk, trying to think of what to write next on the computer.’ Although he admits he has many much-loved family treasures.

‘I’ve been very lucky. I got interested early on, when I had lots of great aunts and cousins who were still alive, but had essentially lived on another planet from this one. For instance, my oldest great aunt, my grandfather’s elder sister, was born in 1880 and was presented in 1898. Downton’s Mary Crawley was born ten years after her, so it isn’t as if I didn’t know people who were living that life.

Harry Hadden-Paton, Elizabeth McGovern, Michelle Dockery, Julian Fellowes on Downton Abbey set

Actors Harry Hadden-Paton, Elizabeth McGovern and Michelle Dockery with Downton Abbey series creator Julian Fellowes on the set of Downton Abbey: A New Era - Credit: Ben Blackall / © 2022 Focus Features LLC

Elizabeth McGovern and screenwriter Julian Fellowes on the set of Downton Abbey: A New Era

Elizabeth McGovern who plays Cora Crawley, Countess of Grantham with Julian Fellowes on the set of Downton Abbey: A New Era - Credit: Ben Blackall / © 2022 Focus Features LLC

‘I’ve got a set of crested brushes in my dressing room. I don’t really use them, but they’re a reminder of the fact that they once began the day of an ancestor, 150 years ago. All of these interlocking patterns make their world very real to me and I think I’ve profited from that.

‘Personal possessions give you a sense of continuity. One of the things about enjoying history is if you can persuade the audience to see it as a continuum; that a novel or drama isn’t a separate place or time. There are a thousand strands connecting us to these people and it’s important to convey that coherently; to show that while some of their concerns are not particularly relevant to us, many of them are.

‘When they’re sitting there in 1823, worrying about their income or hating the man their daughter wants to marry, these are things that anyone can connect with today, and I hope I’m good at that.

‘Hardy was very good at it. Although he wasn’t very interested in the past – The Trumpet-Major (written in 1880) is really his only period novel. He was interested in contemporary England and the problems that contemporary beliefs throw up. And of course it’s the emotions that dominate his novels. He is deeply concerned with pain and suffering, which run through all his books.’

Thomas Hardy, then 69, with 30-year-old Florence Duggan at Aldeburgh in 1909, they married in 1914

Thomas Hardy, then 69, with 30-year-old Florence Duggan at Aldeburgh in 1909, they married in 1914 - Credit: Dorset County Museum

Fellowes goes on to speculate about how Hardy’s family life shaped the man. ‘He’s a very interesting character, because his forming is so difficult to make sense of. His father (Thomas) was a builder – perhaps a bit more than a labourer, but not much – and his mother (Jemima) did the book-keeping. But what was fascinating was that she was very, very well read. Most working-class girls were brought up knowing fundamental mathematics and writing, but she was far beyond that – and clearly very ambitious for her children, for several of Hardy’s siblings were also very high achieving.’ His sister Mary was a headmistress, his other sister, Kate a teacher, and his brother Henry a successful builder who built Max Gate, Hardy's house in Dorchester.

‘There was tremendous intellectual energy throughout Hardy’s childhood, which I believe was down to his mother. Jemima must have been a remarkable woman and the key to everything.’

Jemima Hardy - Thomas's mother who wanted her son to better himself

Jemima Hardy - Thomas's mother who wanted her son to better himself - Credit: Dorset County Museum

Hardy’s father, he suggests, was ‘a decent fellow’, but compared to his wife comes across as quite a background figure. ‘This was a rural, provincial society in the 1850s and 60s, so Jemima’s ambition meant they didn’t fit in. Her son, Thomas had the intellect, education and imagination of someone who nowadays could reasonably have expected a pretty variegated society and social life – which he eventually achieved. But initially he was reaching outside his crowd.’

Fellowes believes this is why Hardy married unhappily, both times, first to Emma Gifford and, after her death, to Florence Dugdale. ‘Neither were his intellectual equal. He should probably have married someone more like Gertrude Floyer. Someone who was able to put up a conversation and talk politically.

‘I suspect that his unhappiness was the legacy of his complicated upbringing: he couldn’t quite find a place where he could be happy.’

He recounts a story to illustrate this. ‘The owners of Kingston Maurward threw a party for the village, who all went and rolled nine pins – they may even have had dinner. Then the house party left, which was the moment when the villagers could start to enjoy themselves. Clearly, Hardy resented this, later taking issue with the dismissal of his own kind as a second-class group to be left behind. Why were they not good enough to have a laugh with these people?’

I ask if he sees similarities in their work regarding themes. ‘I think we both have a mutual desire to involve our audience in the emotional well-being of our characters. You follow a series or get wrapped up in a novel because you want to see how things turn out. The fate of Tess (of the D’Urbervilles) involves you. With Downton Abbey - on a rather more day-to-day level - I hope you mind about Lady Mary.

‘I live in a sunnier world than Thomas Hardy and like a happy ending. But maybe Hardy’s unhappiness was his fuel, and without it his novels might not have been so good.’

He muses further on this: ‘It’s quite a big question: which is more important? To leave a legacy, do something that is marvellous, or just to have a happy life?’

Still from Downton Abbey: A New Era with four of the actors walking across a lawn in tennis gear

Still from the Downton Abbey: A New Era - left to right Harry Hadden-Paton, Laura Carmichael, Tuppence Middleton and Allen Leech - Credit: Ben Blackall/Universal/PA

Certainly Fellowes himself can reflect on a spectacularly successful career, covering theatre (School of Rock, Half a Sixpence, Wind in the Willows), award-winning television series such as Downton Abbey (2010-2015), and more recently The Gilded Age, set in the boom years of 1880s New York City. Then there are the numerous films he’s written, including Gosford Park, Vanity Fair, The Young Victoria, Romeo and Juliet, From Time to Time (filmed at nearby Athelhampton House) and two spin-offs from Downton. The most recent, Downton Abbey: A New Era released at the end of April.

‘I’ve been very fortunate,’ he says. ‘I had 20 years of writing and working like a maniac because I knew it wasn’t going to last forever. Now, when I wake up and think: I haven’t got anything to do today, because I’ve just handed something in and I’ve given myself a day off, I’m absolutely thrilled. There’s little I enjoy more than a day with nothing to do.’

Julian Fellowes walking in the gardens of Stafford House, his home in Dorset 

Julian Fellowes walking in the gardens of Stafford House, his home in Dorset - Credit: @ 2021 Peter Yendell

Hardy’s Wessex: The landscapes that inspired a writer: The four exhibitions (May 28 –October 30) are held simultaneously in Dorset, Poole, Salisbury and Wiltshire Museums. Retelling Thomas Hardy’s story in exciting new ways they feature period costumes, personal letters, manuscripts, art and archaeology. Each museum will focus on a different aspect of Hardy’s life and work:

Dorset Museum: Rural landscape – social tension

Poole Museum: Coastal landscape – love and war

The Salisbury Museum: Urban landscape – women and religion

Wiltshire Museum: Ancient landscape – superstitions

More details at wessexmuseums.org.uk. Discount vouchers available, giving you 25% off one of the other Hardy exhibitions.

Click here for six walks that are Far From the Madding Crowd