When, several years ago, my wife first asked me to watch Downton Abbey with her, I was somewhat skeptical. A television show which had become that much of a fad seemed unlikely to be particularly worthwhile but I decided to give it a try and was soon thrilled with my decision. Not because it was among the better and more fun shows of the past decade, and not because its predominant notes of escapism and stylized glamour did not entirely crowd out surprisingly realistic depictions of some virtues of a traditional social order, but because it introduced me to one of the more interesting literary figures of the present day and one of the few Catholic ones—scriptwriter and novelist Lord Julian Fellowes.
The son of two converts, Fellowes was born into Britain’s upper middle class in 1949. His father had worked as an engineer for Britain’s colonial administration in the Sudan, taken part in the Allied campaign to drive the Italians out of nearby Ethiopia as an army captain during World War II and entered his country’s diplomatic service after the return of peace. A direct ancestor of five generations earlier was Admiral Sir Thomas Fellowes. Two of his great-great uncles were elevated to the rank of baron for their services as solicitor general of Ireland and as governor of Bombay. The future writer began his education at St. Philip’s School, an institution with informal ties to the famous Brompton Oratory, where the family regularly worshiped and where Fellowes still attends Mass (celebrated in Latin) when he is in London. He later studied at the Benedictine’s Ampleforth College (in American terms an elite private high school), earned a degree in literature at Cambridge and studied at the Webber Douglas Academy of Dramatic Art.
After two decades as a minor actor and writer of television scripts, Fellowes rose to the top of his profession when he was asked to write the screenplay for Gosford Park. The movie was to be a black comic take on Agatha Christie-style detective stories. Producer and director Robert Altman wanted to ensure the right combination of a wildly implausible plot with a reasonably authentic depiction of other aspects of the life of an aristocratic English country house. Having spent his life in the correct social milieu and possessing the requisite professional experience, Fellowes was the right man for the job. Gosford Park was released in 2001, winning Fellowes an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay.
Building on that success, Fellowes wrote screenplays for several movies and TV miniseries and for a documentary series, as well as for Downton Abbey (itself originally conceived as a prequel for Gosford Park). Among his more notable works are Young Victoria, an adaptation of Anthony Trollope’s Doctor Thorne, and the 2013 film version of Romeo and Juliet (of which he was one of three producers). A four-part miniseries on the sinking of the Titanic is probably his best film writing and inevitably surpasses the earlier overblown movie on the topic. His greatest achievements from an artistic perspective, have, however, been not as a screenwriter but as a novelist, two of his books being written at a level that demolishes the claims of those who have dismissed Fellowes as a lightweight.
Criticisms of Fellowes have tended to focus on Downton Abbey, the time, place, and segment of society in which it was set often drawing unfavorable comparisons to the novels of Evelyn Waugh. Leaving aside those that were a bit over the top or based on their authors’ political prejudices, most such criticisms have pointed to real enough artistic shortcomings in a way which is entirely accurate in one sense and entirely unfair and irrelevant in another—unfair and irrelevant for the simple reason that Downton Abbey never had any pretensions to being high art. No less eminent a writer than Graham Greene divided his own books into “novels” (by which he meant works of high literary art) and “entertainment” (non-artistic been length works of popular fiction which brought in more substantial income). The nature of Fellowes’ profession requires him to cash in where he can.
Given the frequency of the Waugh comparisons, it is ironic that two of Fellowes’s three novels—Snobs and Past Imperfect—not only deal with some of the themes for which Waugh is famous but are artistic works of a quality which, though not equaling the works of Waugh, approaches to and can fairly be compared with them. Both novels concern the life and the survival of the aristocratic classes in the unfriendly society that has been battering it from the 1960s until the present day. This is the world which Fellowes himself knows best, and it is one he depicts with absolute realism. The characters’ personalities, the challenges they face in life, and the situations in which they find themselves are all those one might have encountered in recent decades if one was numbered among, or had access to, the privileged few.
His third book, Belgravia, is, on the other hand, a return to historical fiction and (intentionally or otherwise) to a predominance of escapist glamour, though for a work of its kind it is undoubtedly well done. A made-for-TV movie, adapted for the screen by Fellowes himself, has recently been released and is worth the watch, being as much superior to most of his other film work as it is a step down from his previous two novels.
What about Fellowes’s approach to religion and morality? Being an artistic writer rather than a moralist, he only rarely addresses religious and moral subjects in any explicit way and often creates characters who, at least in regard to important moral issues, act in way that at least some people of their day and age would, or in ways that make for what he supposes to be a more interesting story. The result might, at times, seem to some to imply at least a sort of passive acceptance of immoral behaviors as legitimate, particularly when (as in the case of Past Imperfect) they are engaged in by the narrating character or (as in that of Downton Abbey) some characters speak of them approvingly.
But the artistic writer is not, as a writer, fundamentally a moralist, however personally moral he may be. His task is either to realistically depict various types of human behavior in fictional characters, or else exaggerate those behaviors for comic or melodramatic effect. He cannot exclude portrayal of immoral behaviors without failing to take the whole of human life into account in his work. He cannot always depict them in a negative way or refute his characters’ beliefs without departing from art for art’s sake in favor of using art as a medium for moral instruction and reflection. An artist’s decision to refrain from censure ought not to be taken as implying approval.
(There is here another parallel with Waugh, whose earlier novels’ depictions of immorality as part of human life without taking a moral stance drew the scorn of Catholic journalists who believed literature must promote morality. Waugh was defended by such luminaries as Monsignor Ronald Knox and Father Martin D’Arcy, who was then England’s leading Catholic academic philosopher.)
When Fellowes does now and again address religion and morality somewhat more explicitly he takes a subtle approach. A dying man who has lived his life without meaningful belief in God tells a friend of his admiration for Catholicism and particularly for Saint Teresa of Avila. A woman is horrified at what she encounters at an abortion clinic and decides to keep her baby, without the moral aspects of abortion being brought into the equation. A stylish, womanizing actor is shown to be a generally deplorable, selfish individual who wrecks the life of his wife and children, though the inherent evil of adultery is left aside. In one case Fellowes even has a character first say that he hopes to see homosexual relationships become universally accepted (in theory) as “decent” as a mere preface to the same character assessing how (in practice) acceptance of homosexual relationships as legitimate has destroyed peoples’ lives.
Unfortunately, the Downton Abbey movie includes scenes that can easily appear a positive depiction of homosexual relationships (and which are totally unsuitable for children), though this is due to their context rather than their content. At the beginning of a movie that later depicted the characters sliding into self-destruction the scenes would appear a case of simple realism, while the TV series depicted the homosexual character largely negatively and those opposed to such relationships almost entirely positively. Overall it can look very much like someone of influence wanted propagandist subplots and Fellowes (ultimately indefensibly) compromised through use of scenes which do not inherently state what their context strongly implies.
It also must be admitted that when Fellowes depicts immorality in an explicitly negative light, he often puts a greater emphasis on the (undoubtedly real) negative effects of rigidly unforgiving attitudes towards the immoral behavior.
To a large extent, however, I think Fellowes’s method of dealing with moral matters has considerable merit. Catholic teachings on life and sexuality are not simply a matter of external rules to be followed but is grounded in human nature and in what is necessary for human flourishing and well being. Fellowes often shows how human well being is harmed by behaviors which the Church condemns as sinful and how human well being is facilitated by behaviors which the Church teaches are either obligatory or permissible. By limiting himself to the link between various behaviors and the well being of people, he is able to present the rationale at the basis of Catholic teaching in a way that could strike a cord with people who would be put off by any sort of moralizing.
If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!