by Svetlana Grobman, Reference Librarian
Originally published by Columbia Daily Tribune.
I admit that when I first heard about Masterpiece Theater's "Downton Abbey," I was skeptical. Another story about British aristocrats and their servants? It has been done—enough already! Yet when I curled up on my sofa with a cup of English tea and turned on my TV, I immediately fell in love with the series. Not because I fantasize about having my breakfast brought to me in bed—I'm not a morning person, and I don't want anybody around when I wake up. And surely not because I'd like to wear corsets or live without a shower.
Why, then? My answer is this: for the visual feast it provides—from the glorious country estate to the period furniture and dresses—and, of course, for the characters I began caring about, no matter their social status. This is not to say the show has no blemishes. One can poke fun at its accuracy—historical and otherwise. For one thing, it rains much more in England than it does at Downton Abbey. You also can spot coincidences that are a little too convenient, such as Matthew's sudden cure and his bride's death. And yet we respond emotionally to the characters seeking love and commitment while trying to figure out the meaning of their lives.
Now that we are waiting for the show's third season, let's learn more about the subjects it touches upon. We'll start with Fiona Carnarvon's "Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey" (Broadway Paperbacks, 2011). Carnarvon tells the story behind Highclere Castle, the real-life inspiration and setting for "Downton Abbey." She also brings to life one of its most famous inhabitants, Lady Almina Carnarvon, godchild—and possibly illegitimate daughter—of Sir Alfred de Rothschild. Almina married the short-on-cash Fifth Earl of Carnarvon and, with Rothschild's money, turned her husband's ancestral home into a social center of Edwardian England. During World War I, she opened Highclere to the wounded, and she also financed her husband's excavation of Tutankhamen's tomb in the Valley of the Kings.
Those who are interested less in the aristocracy and more in the lives of their servants will enjoy Margaret Powell's "Below Stairs: The Classic Kitchen Maid's Memoir" (St. Martin's Press, 2012; published originally in London, 1968), which inspired by both "Downton Abbey" and the old Masterpiece classic "Upstairs, Downstairs" (1971-75, revived by the BBC in 2010). Powell, the second of seven children, grew up in a small English town and was put into domestic service at 15. Her book shows no sentimental attachment of the domestic help—"Us"—to their masters—"Them." Instead, it provides an account of hard work, long hours and social structure that is based on money (and lineage), not on merit.
Were all ladies' maids as manipulative as "Downton Abbey's" O'Brien? Read "Rose: My Life in Service to Lady Astor" (Penguin Books, 2011), a reissue of Rosina Harrison's 1976 memoir. Rose, too, was employed by an American heiress who married into the British aristocracy. A spirited Yorkshire girl, Rose spent 35 years by Lady Astor's side—from parties for royalty and trips across the globe to the air raids during World War II. During that time, she received one raise of 5 British pounds. Yet she retired with a wealth of stories, some of which she shares with her readers.
"The World of Downton Abbey" by Jessica Fellowes (St. Martin's Press, 2011) is a companion to the series. This handsomely illustrated work offers insights into the story and its characters, as well as background information on British society of the time. It also touches on the series' filming and costumes and explains how and why American heiresses married into the British aristocracy and what new qualities they brought to the Old World.
History buffs will enjoy "The Perfect Summer: England 1911, Just Before the Storm" by Juliet Nicolson (Grove Press, 2006). This engaging book covers four summer months of 1911, when English society was living large, the lower classes struggled and the war loomed. Among the people Nicolson brings into focus are Queen Mary, Winston Churchill and butler Eric Horne.
"Birdsong" by Sebastian Faulks (Vintage, 1997) is a World War I-era story of love and heartbreak. The author masterfully reveals lovers' passion and despair as well as conveys the horrors of war and camaraderie of soldiers. Epic with a touch of eroticism, the TV version of Faulks' novel has been dramatized by the BBC, and it will appear on PBS at the end of April.
Kate Morton's novel "The House at Riverton" (Atria Books, 2007) is a maid's account of the life of a prominent British family in the years around World War I. Grace was 14 when she came to serve in the house. Now 98, she is asked to reveal a tragedy that took place there in 1924. The book offers a riveting plot, a tense love story and a haunting ending.
Now, for something lighter, let's turn to Daisy Goodwin's romance novel "The American Heiress" (St. Martin's Press, 2011). Cora Cash marries a duke in need of money and has an extravagant New York wedding. Yet installed into her husband's chilly English castle, she is laughed at by high- and low-brow alike for her American ways, and she has to use Yankee resilience and resourcefulness to win her husband's heart. In the end, Cora finds her place in the Old World, and you might catch yourself fantasizing about marrying a duke, too. Well, as the Dowager Countess of Grantham would say, "Of course, you do!"