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Downton Abbey creator wants to link Charleston to Charleston, UK

January 7, 2017

Stately manses. Polished manners. Pride of place. Landed gentry. Nostalgia for an illustrious but fading past. Fine dining and even finer drinking and a refined sense of fashion. ... Indeed, these hallmarks of the BBC phenomenon otherwise known as “Downton Abbey” could well describe Charleston, South Carolina.

But when the creator, writer and executive producer of the series beloved by some 26 million American viewers comes to town next week, Julian Fellowes will be looking to link our Charleston not with Lord Grantham’s servant-filled, drama-soaked estate, but with another Charleston. The Charleston farmhouse in Sussex, England, not far from where Fellowes grew up.

That Charleston was the eclectic country retreat for the writers and artists who comprised the Bloomsbury Group, including Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell and Bell’s sister, Virginia Woolf. Today the Charleston farmhouse in Sussex has been preserved as a museum run by the nonprofit Charleston Trust, and also is home of the Charleston Festival, a 10-day international literary event held each May.

“As a boy growing up in a village very near Charleston, I of course knew of the house shared by Vanessa Bell and her lover Duncan Grant, and of its extraordinary history tied up with Virginia Woolf,” says Fellowes.

Fellowes went on to study at Cambridge University where he was a classmate of William Nicholson, also now a successful playwright and screenwriter, whose wife and fellow author Virginia Nicholson is the granddaughter of Vanessa Bell. Through the Nicholsons, Fellowes became involved with the Charleston Festival.

Though he is best known for “Downton Abbey,” Fellowes is also the Oscar-winning writer-director of the 2001 Robert Altman film “Gosford Park,” an actor and the author of numerous other film and television screenplays, plays (including “School of Rock” and “Mary Poppins”) and novels.

His rich and varied literary and artistic career makes him an ideal speaker for the Charleston Festival in Sussex, where he has been on the program several times. The festival’s roster of speakers includes other accomplished British authors and intellectuals including Ian McEwan, Jeannette Winterson, Sir Martin Rees, Joanna Trollope and both William and Virginia Nicholson.

Where creativity blooms

Just as Bell and Grant made their Charleston farmhouse a free-flowing intellectual and creative hub a century ago, the festival today furthers the generative power of art by hosting an event “where books, ideas and creativity bloom,” as the festival’s tagline suggests.

Novelists share the stage with politicians; scientists and philosophers talk with artists. “It’s very much in keeping with the spirit and energy of the Bloomsbury era, where people gathered to explore radical ideas and have inspired discussions, to inquire, to paint, to write, to think,” says Debo Gage, a founding member of the Charleston Trust and festival creator.

And the latest idea to be planted and blossom: creating a corollary “Charleston to Charleston Literary Festival” in Charleston (South Carolina).

“I wholly approve of the festival’s goals and endeavors, and so when Debo asked if I’d come help promote the idea of one in your Charleston, I was delighted to do so,” says Fellowes, who is a friend and former Sussex neighbor of Gage’s.

In keeping with the style and format of the Sussex festival, which presents conversations with leading thinkers and authors in various fields, Fellowes will take part in dialogues open to the public, one at the Dock Street Theatre, where he will be interviewed by former PBS president Ervin Duggan; and at a literary luncheon at the Charleston Library Society, in conversation with his friend and literary colleague William Nicholson. Nicholson is the Oscar-nominated writer of 11 films, including “Shadowlands,” “Gladiator,” “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom” and “Les Miserables.”

“We’ve found that having at least two people on stage in dialogue with each other creates an engaging flow of ideas,” says Gage. “The vital part of the festival is not what happens on stage, but how people come together and have amazing conversations after the presenters come down off the stage. The atmosphere and ambiance is extraordinary.”

A Good Fit

The Charleston Library Society is hosting Lord Fellowes’ visit to Charleston and partnering with the Charleston Trust in creating the offshoot Charleston to Charleston Literary Festival. Proceeds from next week’s programs will fund the November 2017 launch of the South Carolina festival.

“There’s real excitement about not only bringing Lord Fellowes to Charleston, but bringing an outstanding literary festival here. That’s something that Charleston hasn’t had, and I think a city with a rich literary tradition like ours deserves one,” says Anne Cleveland, director of the Charleston Library Society.

As she learned more about the Sussex festival, and after attending it last May and witnessing firsthand the impressive roster of speakers and casual, accessible setting in the beautiful countryside, Cleveland was convinced it made sense to organize a version of England’s festival here. “There’s no reason to reinvent the wheel,” she notes.

Initially, the South Carolina version will be an abbreviated version of the Sussex program, but like Spoleto Festival USA, it may ultimately “gain its own legs and become broader,” says Cleveland.

Gage is equally excited about finding a stateside home for the festival. A frequent Spoleto Festival-goer, she had been looking for the right spot to expand the Charleston Festival and said “a light bulb went off” while in town for Spoleto.

“It’s perfect,” says Gage. “We knew we wanted a beautiful destination city with a strong literary tradition.”

Fellowes, too, is looking forward to visiting the Holy City. “I’m excited about staying with residents and meeting real Charlestonians,” he says. “Charleston is a physical survival from another world, really, and I’m interested to find out how much of the old traditions and the old thinking are still preserved by the population, or have they moved on entirely but within these beautiful buildings.”

Not terribly unlike the Crawley family at Downton Abbey, perhaps.

“Yes,” Lord Fellowes adds, “you could say that is a bit close to me, yes.”