SUMPTUOUS BRITISH PERIOD DRAMA Downtown Abbey, which made its American debut on PBS in early 2011, launched a love affair that, as of the end of the show's third season, has involved an estimated 120 million viewers worldwide. Set on the fictional Yorkshire estate of Downton Abbey, the beloved series follows the aristocratic Crawley family and their servants as their traditional way of life collides with the changes brought by the tumultuous years of the early 20th century.
Downton Abbey fans will be pleased to hear that the fourth season, currently in production, is scheduled to air on PBS in early 2014. For those who can't wait, we have compiled a list of books that cover some of the same terrain as the series, focusing on the British upper classes and their underlings (preferably on a large country estate) in the early 1900s. We know our list not the series, but this sampling of titles--some old and some new, some well-known and some less so--may help to tide readers over until they can visit with the Crawleys (and their servants) once again.
THE COMPANION PIECE
The World of Downton Abbey (2011)
By Jessica Fellowes
Lavishly illustrated with preproduction sketches and onset photographs from the first two seasons, this charming companion book focuses on both the celebrated series and the era in which it takes place. Anecdotes of the filming and mini-interviews with the cast and crew are interspersed with an outline of the history, culture, and politics that drive the show's story lines. Jessica Fellowes, a journalist and former deputy editor of the British magazine Country Life, gained access to the show through her uncle, series creator Julian Fellowes, whose chatty foreword reveals that Downton Abbey was inspired by his lifelong fascination with British history and stately homes. A second companion book, The Chronicles of Downton Abbey: A New Era (2012), examines season three.
LIFE IN AN ENGLISH COUNTRY HOUSE, UPSTAIRS ...
Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey (2011)
The Lost Legacy of Highclere Castle
By the Countess of Carnarvon
The grand manor glimpsed during the show's opening credits is Highclere Castle, the 1,000-acre Hampshire estate owned by the Earls of Carnarvon since the late 18th century. In 1895, the 5th Earl of Carnarvon (made famous by his role in the discovery of King Tutankhamen's tomb) married American heiress Almina Wombwell, whose sizable dowry saved her husband from financial ruin and salvaged his ancestral home. Drawing on diaries, letters, and other documents from the family archives, Lady Almina, written in a breezy, personal tone by Fiona Herbert, the 8th Countess of Carnarvon, re-creates the life of Highclere Castle during Lady Almina's reign--from its opulent Edwardian weekend parties (before the installation of electricity and indoor plumbing) to its service as an officer's hospital during World War I.
To Marry an English Lord (1989)
Tales of Wealth and Marriage, Sex and Snobbery
By Gail MacColl and Carol McD. Wallace
Recently back in print, this amusing, readable social history chronicles the mass migration of nouveau riche American heiresses to England to marry insolvent noblemen with pedigrees and palaces but little cash. Systematically snubbed by New York's Gilded Age elite, young women like Consuelo Vanderbilt and Jennie Jerome Churchill became duchesses, countesses, and ladies, providing their families back home with increased social distinction--often at the cost of homesickness and heartache. MacColl and Wallace serve up colorful personalities, gossipy anecdotes, and fascinating period detail, from the fussy strictures of Edwardian etiquette to the era's prevailing fashions and trends, and take readers on a captivating gambol through a little-known moment in American and British history.
The Perfect Summer (2007)
England, 1911, Just Before the Storm
By Juliet Nicolson
Another entertaining and gossipy slice of social history, The Perfect Summer, written by the grand-daughter of award-winning author Vita Sackville-West, recounts the scorching, sun-drenched summer of 1911. While dangerous social and political tensions threatened to boil over and bring the nation to a standstill, the upper classes fled the heat and grime of London for idylls in the country and the seashore. Drawing on the personal papers of such prominent society members as Winston Churchill, the Bloomsbury Group, and King George V, Nicolson creates a vivid, if anecdotal, image of that sweltering season and the inexorable cultural shifts that would bring their privileged way of life to an end.
... AND DOWNSTAIRS
The Real Life
Downton Abbey (2012)
How Life Was Really Lived in Stately Homes a Century Ago
By Jacky Hyams
While this conversational narrative uses characters from Downton Abbey as a reference point for readers, it is only cursorily connected to the series. It surveys the armies of butlers, valets, footmen, grooms, chauffeurs, gardeners, grounds-keepers, maids, cooks, and housekeepers that kept extensive country estates running smoothly in the early 1900s. Hyams, a freelance journalist and regular contributor to the Evening Standard, has amassed a compelling collection of interesting stories that touch on every aspect of life in domestic service: its duties, manners, ethics, standards, styles, social expectations, pastimes, problems, and even salaries. Light and entertaining, The Real Life Downton Abbey will acquaint readers with the men and women who were the heart and...