Updated February 2012! Do the names Lord Grantham, Mr. Carson, and Lady Violet mean anything to you? Can you discuss at length the love story of Mary and Matthew? Does the word week-end, bring to mind Maggie Smith’s impeccably-timed line delivery? If so, then you are a Downton-ite... or is it Downton-head? Whatever the case may be, it means that you are a fan of the ITV/Masterpiece Theater drama Downton Abbey. First airing on PBS in January 2011, this British series depicts life (upstairs and downstairs) in an English manor house belonging to Lord Grantham and his family, from 1912 to 1920. It was a surprise hit in the U.K. and in the States as well.
Now that series two has finally aired in America, the long wait for series three has arrived! It will hit the U.S. in January 2013 (but will air in Britain in Fall 2012). Here are a few hints as to what will happen (or so they say!): it will start up approximately four months after the last episode aired, in spring 1920, and will span a time period of 18 months. For those of you thirsting for more books and movies depicting life in England during the Edwardian era, World War I, and the Roaring 20s I am here to save the day! If you haven’t yet seen Downton Abbey, now is your chance to get caught up and become well informed before the next season airs in the U.S.!
Movies and TV series:
The most obvious choice to fill the time is the acclaimed, long-running BBC show Upstairs, Downstairs, which aired during the 1970s and depicts life in a London townhouse between the years 1903 to 1930. It is a wonderful show, but be prepared to spend hours watching it. I watched one to three episodes a day, five days a week, and it still took me three months! A new installment of the drama aired in the U.S. this past spring, but it depicts the years 1936 to 1937. Another British drama with the same upstairs/downstairs plotting is Berkeley Square. Set in 1902 in London, it tells the stories of three nannies and the families who employ them. A little known favorite of mine is the BBC show House of Eliott. Set in London during the 1920s, it is the perfect look at a changing British society. It tells the story of two independent and enterprising sisters who turn their dressmaking business into a fashion house.
Two stellar feature films that have masters/servants story lines are Gosford Park and Remains of the Day. They may not be set during the Downton time line — they take place in the 1930s — but they both take place at English manor houses, and both contain powerhouse performances by acclaimed actors and actresses. Gosford Park, written by Julian Fellowes (creator of Downton Abbey), stars Helen Mirren, Kristin Scott Thomas, and Clive Owen. Remains of the Day, based on the novel by Kazuo Ishiguro, stars Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson.
For those looking for a non-fiction documentary series, back in the early 70s the BBC produced an eight-part series called The Edwardians, depicting the movers and shakers of the era, as well as dramatizations of pivotal events.
Around the same time that Downton first aired, I read Juliet Nicolson’s The Perfect Summer: England 1911, Just Before the Storm. The granddaughter of the scandalous literary couple Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson, she has written a fascinating anecdotal history of Edwardian high society at it’s zenith during one long, hot summer. Her equally good follow-up is The Great Silence: Britain from the Shadow of the First World War to the Dawn of the Jazz Age, which depicts the years immediately following the war, England’s attempt to deal with the horror of all the dead and wounded, social upheaval, and the emergence of the Jazz Age.
Vita Sackville-West grew up at Knole House, one of the largest private houses in England, which has been inhabited for over 400 years by 13 generations of one eccentric family — the Sackvilles. In Inheritance: The story of Knole and the Sackvilles, author Lord Robert Sackville-West gives us if-these-walls-could-talk stories and larger-than-life characters that have the fictional Downton Abbey paling in comparison, proving that truth is stranger than fiction. One of those larger-than-life characters was Idina Sackville. In The Bolter, written by her great-granddaughter Frances Osborne, we learn of a young woman who rejected Edwardian morals, left her children and husband at the end of World War I, and embarked on a life of parties, scandalous love affairs, and a decadent life in Kenya. A more comprehensive look at the scandalous, aristocratic men and women of the Jazz Age is chronicled in Bright Young People: The Lost Generation of London’s Jazz Age by D.J. Taylor.
For a closer look at the Downton series, try the recently published The World of Downton Abbey by Jessica Fellowes, a behind-the-scenes look at the show and Edwardian society. For a personal look at a servant's life, read Below Stairs by Margaret Powell, a memoir of a circa 1920s English maid. Published in 1968, it inspired Upstairs, Downstairs and now has a new edition. Highclere Castle, the setting for Downton Abbey, has it's own stories. Read Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey by Lady Fiona Carnavon. Lady Almina, the young, illegitimate daughter of a Rothchild, married the Fifth Earl of Carnavon and moved to Highclere Castle. She was instrumental in turning the house into a hospital for soldiers during WWI. Apparently, she is the inspiration behind the character of Isobel Crawley.
The classic choices for novels are Howard’s End and A Room with a View by E.M. Forster (both also available on DVD), which have exquisite depictions of early Edwardian life, stiff-upper-lip emotional repression, and class divisions. A lesser known classic is The Edwardians by Vita Sackville-West, which skewers Edwardian high society with all its decadence and decorative, inbred aristocrats. It focuses on the young heirs Sebastian and Viola and a lavish house party that changes them forever.
There is plenty of recent fiction that takes on Edwardian society. In The Shooting Party (also available on DVD), author Isabel Colegate uses a weekend house party in 1913 to expose a decaying social and moral code and a way of life under siege. Then there is The Children’s Book by acclaimed British author A.S. Byatt, which focuses on several aristocratic and artistic families from 1895 to 1914. Shortlisted for the 2009 Man Booker prize, it touches on social issues, the Arts and Crafts movement, and the politics of the era. For the more ambitious reader, there is Ken Follet’s epic Fall of Giants, which follows several different families from many countries as they face the juggernaut that is WWI. At 1,000 pages, you will be reading for a while, but it gives a great understanding of the war and how it changed the world and society. I recently read the entertaining The American Heiress by Daisy Goodwin. Like Cora, Countess Grantham in Downton Abbey, it features a wealthy and naïve American girl (also named Cora) who marries into British high society in the 1890s, as well as the changes she must make to survive and thrive. A more classic take on this story is The Buccaneers by Edith Wharton (also on DVD).
If mysteries, thrillers, and romance are more your style, there is plenty for you too. In The House at Riverton by Kate Morton, the Ashbury family’s lavish Edwardian lifestyle comes to an end after a tragic death at a weekend party. Grace, a young housemaid at the time, has kept the family’s secrets, but at the end of her life she is about to expose them all. The Crimson Rooms by Katherine McMahon may take place in 1924, but Edwardian morals and the ghosts of WWI infuse the tale with a sense of repression and unease. It tells the story of a young female lawyer as she deals with her first murder case, a family scandal, and an illicit love affair. Family secrets and mysterious deaths abound in Marjorie Eccles’s Edwardian-era set suspense thrillers Shadows and Lies and The Shape of Sand. If you want a sleuthing series to keep you reading, a favorite of mine is the Bess Crawford series by Charles Todd, which starts with A Duty to the Dead. It follows a young, intrepid WWI army nurse as she solves mysteries while on leave from France. Another favorite is the Dandy Gilver series by Catriona McPherson. Starting with After the Armistice Ball, it follows a witty Scottish socialite and her mother. The socialite gets into the sleuthing game out of sheer boredom and takes place at the beginning of the 1920s. Of course, there is also the incomparable Maisie Dobbs series by Jaqueline Winspear. Set after WWI, psychologist-investigator Dobbs is a female heroine who is smart, independent, methodical, and able to move through all levels of English society.
Last but not least is the sweet, light romance Countess Below Stairs by Eva Ibbotson. Set at an English country house at the end of WWI, it is the story of a Russian aristocrat/refugee who gets a job as a housemaid. An all-time favorite of mine, the book may be a light romance, but it still manages to discuss the plight of WWI veterans, the Russian Revolution of 1917, anti-semitism among the British aristocracy, and the appalling Eugenics movement which would soon manifest itself in Nazi Germany.
Phew! Hopefully, this will keep you busy until the next DA airs. Please add your own recommendations in the comments section!