Saturday November 3, 2012

LENOX -- As he sauntered from room to room in Edith Wharton's home, The Mount, on Friday, director and screenwriter Lord Julian Fellowes' admiration for both the novelist and her home was evident.

"The scale of this place is so charming," Fellowes mused after finally sitting down with a small goblet of water.

He so admired the grounds that he was even hesitant to set his goblet of water down on a table next to his chair without a coaster, lest it leave a water mark on the antique piece.

Wharton's storytelling has influenced some of Fellowes' own work, including the wildly successful, award-winning TV show "Downton Abbey," a PBS anthology miniseries created by Fellowes about an English family and their servants living on an estate circa 1900s.

Fellowes, who lives just outside of London, will receive the 2012 Edith Wharton Lifetime Achievement Award in Boston today, but he extended his first trip to Massachusetts by one day to have time to visit The Mount for the first time

"You come to get more of a handle on someone," Fellowes told The Eagle. "Just reading their work doesn't give you that sort of modesty."

During a tour of The Mount guided by Executive Director Susan Wissler, Fellowes admired the extra space in the house, the minute details in the architecture, and even took extra notice of the servant quarters. Servants are featured prominently in "Downton Abbey."

Several times during the tour, Fellowes said "The essence of luxury is wasted space," according to Rebecka McDougall, The Mount's marketing and communications director.

"He was so charming and knowledgeable," Wissler said. "It's another star in the sky that celebrates Wharton's 150th birthday."

The estate is a "survivor," according to Fellowes, because it's managed to stick around even though it's weathered previous generations that weren't as keen on historical preservation.

Fellowes kept Wharton's library, full of reporters, photographers, and estate officials laughing with the same cheeky wit often found in some of his other popular screenplays like "Gosford Park," "Vanity Fair," "The Young Victoria" and "The Tourist."

While sitting in the library among books annotated by Wharton herself, Fellowes referenced "The House of Mirth" and "The Custom of the Country" several times. He became acquainted with her work on his own, and wasn't taught it in school, he said.

"She had the ability to judge the society from which she came from, but not condemn it," Fellowes said. "It's simply an examination of the strengths and weaknesses of society."

Fellowes was too modest to compare his writings to Wharton's, but it's hard to let the similarities and themes go unnoticed.

His 2004 book "Snobs" and 2005 film "Separate Lies" were set in a more modern, middle-class setting. However, Fellowes has become "the go-to guy," he said, when filmmakers need a script for TV and movies referred to in the industry as "costume dramas," which depict a long-gone era using elaborate dresses draped upon well-spoken, affluent debutantes and large Victorian mansions that would still be hard to afford even by today's standards.

But not unlike Wharton, Fellowes takes what's a superficially attractive lifestyle, like the ones seen in his screenplays for "The Young Victoria," "Gosford Park" and "Downton Abbey," and then observing and deconstructing it with fleshed-out characters.

"I don't think anyone's completely good or completely bad," Fellowes said. "It's much more fun when an author doesn't dictate to you how you should feel about a character."

In "Downton Abbey," for example, characters like Thom as and O'Brien may seem unsympathetic at first, but Fellowes adds back stories and humanity to the characters to gain sympathy should the viewers decide to give it.

"Thomas is gay in an era that you can be put in jail for it," Fellowes said. "O'Brien had a very unhappy childhood."

The level of fandom for "Downton Abbey" among employees at The Mount ranged from casual fans to those who watched the pilot when it aired in 2010.

"I was like I giddy kid when I saw him here," said Megan Lamarre-Smith, the group tour coordinator at The Mountwho started watching the show at its beginning.

Because of Fellowes' known brand of historical drama, The Mount wouldn't look out of place in a Lord Julian Fellowes' screenplay. Wissler entertained such a possibility of having it featured in a possible "Downton Abbey" prequel, during the time of the Buccaneers.

"A starting point in the Berkshires isn't out of the possibility," Wissler said.

To reach Adam Poulisse:
apoulisse@berkshireeagle.com,
or (413)496-6214.