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"Downton Abbey": How Robert and Cora Crawley First Met

Rik is a fan of English historical TV dramas such as Downton and Call the Midwife and has enjoyed predicting what might happen next..

Countess Cora and Robert Earl of Grantham, Downton Abbey

Countess Cora and Robert Earl of Grantham, Downton Abbey

Julian Fellowes: I Got There First!

I published this Downton prequel focusing on a young Cora and Robert on 4 August 2012 and, what do you know, Julian Fellowes announces a month later he is writing the very same story! The man is a plagiarist!

Without further ado - here is the real deal. Read on for the true Downton Abbey prequel, while Julian is playing catchup!

Martha has been instrumental in bringing Lord Grantham and Cora Levinson together. What follows here is the story of how this unlikely pair got together, married, and finally fell in love.

The Story of the Early Years of Cora Levinson and Robert Crawley

About 6 months after her husband Isidore died, Martha Levinson decided to take her grieving daughter Cora to London in order to cheer her up and also to see if she could help Cora find a husband.

Martha also had another more selfish motive in marrying off Cora. While her own husband had left her a large fortune, because his wealth came from trading in dry goods, New York society considered it ‘new money’. This limited Martha’s social status compared to those who came from traditionally wealthy families.

Martha saw an opportunity to marry her attractive and vivacious daughter Cora into the British aristocracy and so increase her own social standing in the US.

The London visit provided a huge success with a whirlwind of parties, balls and other entertainment that soon took Cora and Martha's minds off their recent loss. Martha was delighted to see Cora positively glow in the company of so many new and interesting people.

Robert Crawley (Hugh Bonneville)

Robert Crawley (Hugh Bonneville)

Cora Levinson (Elizabeth McGovern)

Cora Levinson (Elizabeth McGovern)

An Invitation to Downton Abbey

During their visit, an old school friend of Martha’s offered to arrange an invitation for Martha and Cora, along with her own daughter Clara, to a weekend house party at Downton Abbey in Yorkshire.

Over the course of the long weekend, Cora fell madly in love with Downton. She adored its history, the splendour of its accommodation and the magnificent grounds with so many lush green lawns, elaborate flower gardens, fine statues and intricate fountains. She was also introduced to Robert the heir to Downton and the title of the Earl of Grantham.

She had mixed impressions of Robert – in fact she liked him rather less than she liked his home, the Abbey. Yes, he was polite, charming and kind but Cora quickly detected what she saw as weaknesses in his character, in particular a lack of confidence and general stuffiness. She also noted a sense of duty and responsibility that so dominated his thinking that it seemed more important to him than his own happiness.

However, Cora enjoyed his company as he showed her around the estate and delighted in gently teasing him about his English manners and embarrassing him over his adherence to tradition.

After he had patiently explained to her the intricacies of fox hunting, she remarked, “So much effort to exterminate such a small mammal. It occurs to me that your family are always dressing up either for dinner or fox hunting. Why not save time and keep your hunting clothes on and eat the fox for dinner?”

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Robert gave her a strained smile. “When you put it like that it may seem to you our life style is a little,” he hesitated, “eccentric.”

Cora assumed from her time spent with Robert that he must have found her impertinent and rude and be relieved and happy to wave the Levinsons goodbye.

A Younthful Martha Levinson Demonstrating the 'Levinson Charm' (Shirley Maclaine)

A Younthful Martha Levinson Demonstrating the 'Levinson Charm' (Shirley Maclaine)

An Unexpected Letter

Cora thought quite a lot about Robert on her return to New York. This annoyed her as she couldn't see a logical reason why.

She was genuinely taken aback when she received a letter from him saying how much he had enjoyed her company at Downton and hoping that they might meet again in the future.

Martha was very excited by the letter and persuaded Cora to allow her to invite Robert to the family vacation retreat in Newport, Rhode Island.

“Heaven knows what he will make of our cosy little holiday home after Downton.” Muttered Martha.

“Mother, please don’t be so silly. You know it’s a respectable mansion,”

To their surprise, he telegraphed them on receiving the letter to say he had estate business in Boston in a few weeks time and would be pleased to drop by Rhode Island before returning to England.

By the day of Robert’s arrival, everyone at Canaveral House in Newport was in a high state of panic.

“For goodness sake, stop fussing Mother, he is coming to see me, not the house. Not that I know why. We didn't exactly hit it off.”

“Its part of the Levinson female charm. Even when we are as rude as hell the men still adore us,” said Martha modestly.

Canaveral House in Newport, Rhode island owned by Martha Levenson

Canaveral House in Newport, Rhode island owned by Martha Levenson

What do you know about Shirley Maclaine?

For each question, choose the best answer. The answer key is below.

  1. What did Shirley Maclaine recently say about Maggie Smith. Was it?
    • Maggie Smith is a bore. She needs to stop living on past glories.
    • Maggie and I go way back. We did a play together on Broadway in ‘65
    • People say I’m nuts so what does that make Maggie?
    • I adore Maggie. I’ve known her for years. I think we were lovers in another life.
  2. When was Shirley Maclaine born?
    • 1923
    • 1940
    • 1934
    • 1930
  3. Did she ever win an Academy Award for Best Actress?
    • No but she was nominated for an award 5 times.
    • Yes. Won Best Actress in 1983.
    • No, but she did get Best Supporting Actress in 1963
    • No but she did win an Academy Award for best Screen Writing in 1972
  4. What is Shirley reported to have hated while shooting Downton?
    • The loos (bathrooms) at Highclere Castle
    • The costumes she had to wear
    • The food on set
    • The weather

Answer Key

  1. I adore Maggie. I’ve known her for years. I think we were lovers in another life.
  2. 1934
  3. Yes. Won Best Actress in 1983.
  4. The costumes she had to wear

Interpreting Your Score

If you got 2 correct answers: Good try.

If you got 3 correct answers: Well done - you are obviously a fan

If you got 4 correct answers: Brilliant - You probably know more than Shirley does about her own life!

The Proposal

During Robert's stay in Newport Cora found, against her better judgement, an increasing interest and attachment to the modest, polite young Englishman.

"The attraction of opposites," said her Mother. It was also clear to everyone that Cora, in spite of her outspokenness, had won the heart of her English visitor.

During his last week in Newport, Robert asked Cora to accompany him on a stroll through the gardens but she noted with interest his desire to get her well away from the house and prying eyes.

Finally, when the house was a small dot on the New England landscape, he got down on one knee and took Cora’s hand. She laughed, assuming he was joking but the smile quickly faded from her lips when she saw how earnest he was and saw the glint of gold and diamond in the open box in his hand.

“Dear Robert, I’m truly flattered but we really hardly know each other and I’d certainly not be a fitting wife for a future English Earl. I wouldn't know where to begin trying to run a place like Downton Abbey.”

“Cora, I’ve been thinking about this a lot. You are exactly what Downton needs. You’re intelligent, decisive and innovative. My family have lived at Downton since 1772. You could help me take Downton into the 20th century. The Crawley's has to adapt to a changing world.”

"Robert I need more time. This is a big decision. We are so different. This isn't something I can rush into."

Cora didn't mention the proposal again and it left an awkwardness between them. Two days later, with his departure back to England imminent, Robert had just started packing when a note was pushed under his door.

His heart leaped when he recognised Cora’a expressive and distinctive handwriting.

The cabin by the lake at Canaveral House

The cabin by the lake at Canaveral House

Here is a link to the BBC website where Julian Fellowes reveals HIS idea about this prequel. What a cheek! He must think he owns Downton Abbey or something!

The Island Cabin

Cora's letter invited him to walk with her in the grounds of Canaveral House that afternoon. At the appointed time he found her, as arranged, sitting on a bench in the garden.

She gave him a hamper to carry and they made small talk as they strolled in the hot sunshine towards the shore of the lake.

“I wanted to show you my Father’s hideaway. It has some happy memories. We need to row across the lake to the island over there. I assume you can row, Robert?”

“Yes I think I can remember,” he said, sarcastically as he climbed nimbly into the boat.”

“Of course, I could row but I thought you might be happier taking the helm,” she said smiling mischievously at him. When they reached the island and had tied up the boat at the pier, Robert noticed a simple wooden decked cabin about the size of a single story cottage.

“This is my Father's place, a special part of my life now. When I’m here I feel close to him. I’m the only one who normally visits. You are the first man I’ve ever bought here,” her eyes twinkled flirtatiously.

She showed him around the cabin then opened up the hamper and produced a lunch and a bottle of chilled white wine that they shared outside at a small table on the decking. Robert was surprised when Cora invited him to swim.

"I’ve no costume," he said by way of an explanation. She stared at him in an amused fashion and disappeared into the cabin.

The wine and the sun had made Robert sleepy and he soon fell into a light doze. He woke suddenly and, as in a dream, entered the cabin,stumbled from room to room looking for Cora. He noted the rear door half open and wandered out onto the wooden deck at the rear.

At first he could see only dazzling clear still water reflecting the hot summer sun. Then he saw a wake about 10 feet from the pier.

Suddenly a woman surfaced from under the water and rose into the air with such grace and poise releasing thousands of droplets of water, each becoming a point of pure sunlight over the water. He gasped at the spectacle then turned and retreated guiltily into the cabin, peering at her through the dirty window.

At first he could see nothing then suddenly Cora emerged from the lake and climbed onto the pier quite naked. She walked totally unselfconsciously along the deck and retrieved her robe from the rail. Robert threw himself quickly onto the sofa and pretended to be asleep.

Cora and Robert Crawley Poll

Swimming Helps Me Think

Eventually, Cora appeared.

"Don't kid me you were asleep. I saw you watching me through the window."

Robert sat up, red faced.

“Here's the thing," said Cora. "Swimming clears my head and helps me think. And I’m still not sure about your true feelings, Robert. I don’t want a marriage of convenience. I don’t want to be around just to give you an heir or two or to provide funding for Downton. Is this thing between us for real? Are you passionate about me? Is your cold English heart really engaged?”

“I do care for you," said Robert earnestly. "I find you challenging, irritating and lovely. I think you’d be good for Downton but I think you’d be even better for me.”

She sat down next to him and kissed him, on the cheek, then the lips.

“Show me what you are made of, Bobby.”

“What do you mean?

“Oh, I think you know what I mean,” Cora looked him straight in the eye. “I need to be sure. This has to be for real.”

She moved closer. The scent of her overpowered him. He took her hungrily in his arms. He thrilled to the feel of her body against his through her thin silk kimono.

“Now that’s more like it,” she whispered in his ear.

He woke sometime later holding Cora in his arms. The sun was low on the horizon.

“We need to get back," said Cora. "I’ll make myself respectable then you can row me home. I hope you still have the energy to get us back. I’d hate to think I’d burned you out!”

The rowing boat that Robert rowed to take Cora to the Island

The rowing boat that Robert rowed to take Cora to the Island

The Journey Home

Robert rowed in silence. Cora sat quietly thinking. Suddenly she said, "So if I marry you then one day I’ll be the Countess of Grantham. Is Grantham in Yorkshire?"

"Here is another thing. When we marry I will insist on a shared bed at all times. None of that each have our own room stuff. You visit me once a year strictly to father the next offspring’. Also no slipping off to be with some society floozie and no mistresses in Paris or anywhere else."

"Does that mean you've decided to marry me?" enquired Robert.

"Yes I believe we should marry," said Cora. "I think you valet, Carson would approve."

"How on Earth would you know what Carson thinks?" asked Robert.

"I make it my business to get on good terms with servants," she said mysteriously.

Cora leaned back in her seat and closed her eyes, contentedly. She wore a cat that got the cream smile. "I think you'll do me very well Robert Crawley. Also I promise never to swim unclothed in the lake at Downton."

"I'm so relieved to hear it," said Robert," I don't think my Mother could cope with that. Nor could Carson."

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