New Julian Fellowes project, ‘Belgravia,’ treads new digital ground

There are few literary mediums that Julian Fellowes has not dabbled in.

Mr. Fellowes, the creator of the hit historical British melodrama "Downton Abbey," has worked on screenplays, stage plays, novels and a children's book. He wrote the book for "School of Rock," a raucous new Broadway musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber adapted from the 2003 Richard Linklater movie, and he is working on his new NBC series "The Gilded Age," set in New York in the late 19th century.

Now, for his next project, "Belgravia," Mr. Fellowes is marrying an old narrative form — the serialized novel, in the tradition of Charles Dickens's "The Pickwick Papers" — with the latest digital delivery system: an app.

Julian Fellowes, writer and creator of 'Downton Abbey'
Theo Wargo | Getty Images
Julian Fellowes, writer and creator of 'Downton Abbey'

"Belgravia" takes place in London in the 1840s and opens decades earlier during the Battle of Waterloo. It explores the class divisions between the established aristocracy and newly wealthy families who made their fortunes through the Industrial Revolution. But instead of having the sweeping narrative arc of a novel, it will unfold more like a new network TV series, in 10 weekly digital installments that will arrive automatically on readers' phones, tablets or computers. The chapters cost $1.99 each, and $13.99 all together. The app will also incorporate an audio version, music, video, character portraits, family trees, images of period fashion and maps of Belgravia.

"To marry the traditions of the Victorian novel to modern technology, allowing the reader, or listener, an involvement with the characters and the background of the story and the world in which it takes place, that would not have been possible until now, and yet to preserve within that the strongest traditions of storytelling, seems to me a marvelous goal and a real adventure," Mr. Fellowes said in a statement released through Grand Central Publishing, which will publish the novel in hardcover in July.

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With "Downton Abbey," an addictive series about an upper-class British family and its household servants, Mr. Fellowes has already proven himself adept at fashioning soap opera-worthy cliffhangers. On Sunday, PBS's "Masterpiece" will begin airing the show's sixth and final season. The show drew an average of more than 13 million viewers in its fourth season, and became the top rated PBS drama of all time.

The first chapter of "Belgravia" will arrive in April, shortly after the last season of "Downton Abbey" concludes. The app will be available through a website and individual chapters can be purchased for download through major e-book retailers like Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble's website.

A still from the British drama series, Downton Abbey.
Source: www.carnivalfilms.co.uk
A still from the British drama series, Downton Abbey.

App-based novels remain a relatively new and unproven format, but they could begin to catch on as some prominent authors experiment with the interactive possibilities of apps.

Last year, the British novelist Iain Pears released his new book "Arcadia" as an app that allowed readers to toggle among 10 different story lines, and Eli Horowitz published his comic dystopian novel "The Pickle Index" as a hardcover, paperback and interactive app simultaneously. This spring, the best-selling novelist Wally Lamb will publish a new novel, "I'll Take You There," exclusively as an app via the digital publishing company Metabook.

With its episodic delivery schedule, "Belgravia" will test whether "appointment reading" can become as habit-forming as a recurring TV show or serialized podcast. Jamie Raab, the president and publisher of Grand Central Publishing, said the concept behind "Belgravia" appealed to her because of Mr. Fellowes's television background and his knack for keeping audiences engaged in a story over months and even years.

"I've always been intrigued by the idea of publishing a novel in short episodic bites," she said. "He gets how to keep the story paced so that you're caught up in the current episode, then you're left with a cliffhanger."

The thematic overlap with "Downton Abbey," and the timing of the release, as "Downton Abbey" comes to an end, could help attract fans of the show who are experiencing withdrawal, she said.

" 'Belgravia' deals with the different classes in England, and I think that's what people like so much about 'Downton Abbey' and before that, 'Upstairs Downstairs,' " she said, referencing a show that ran in the 1970s. "There's a lot of drama and melodrama."