I was supposed to be born in England some time in the late nineteenth century. I firmly believe that. Sadly, by virtue of a cosmic accident, I was born in Australia about a hundred years behind schedule. In hopes of rectifying this obvious mistake, I have written several strongly worded letters addressed to Fate and The Powers That Be.
I am still anxiously awaiting a response.
Another thing I’m anxiously awaiting is Season 3 of Downton Abbey. There’s nothing quite like sitting down with a cup of tea, a plate of cucumber sandwiches and an episode of Downton. For anyone who has spent the past two years in a coma or stranded on a deserted island (these being the only two reasons I will accept for not being a confirmed Downton Addict) Downton Abbey is a TV show about an aristocratic English family and the army of servants who run their household. It is a show that has everything. Star crossed lovers, long lost family members, unexpected deaths, back-stabbing sisters, murder trials and blackmail schemes and Maggie Smith (who absolutely owns every scene in which she appears as the indomitable Dowager Duchess of Grantham).
It is largely thanks to Downton Abbey that I’ve recently found myself reading lots of books set in pre/post war England – the time period and homeland of my soul. And so, for all my fellow tea-totalling Anglophiles out there, here are some great reads to tide us over while we wait for the next season of Downton Abbey. Each book listed will receive a “Downton Award”, to be presented by a character from the show.
The Remains of the Day
by Kazuo Ishiguro
Winner of the Downton Award for “Most Dignified Butler” – to be presented by Carson.
Have you ever found yourself wondering what it would be like if Downton Abbey’s dour-faced butler, Carson, was secretly in love with Mrs. Hughes? The Remains of the Day will satisfy your curiosity and then some. This is a heart rending tale of love gone unspoken between a butler and a house keeper, told in the subtle yet emotionally fraught style of Kazuo Ishiguro.
I come back to this book time and again and with each re-read, I get so completely caught up that I inevitably find myself hoping that it will end differently – only to be struck anew by the perfectly bitter-sweet conclusion.
I Capture the Castle
by Dodie Smith
This is one of my all-time favourite books, one that starts with what I think is the best opening line ever –
“I write this sitting in the kitchen sink”.
So begins the diary of Cassandra Mortmain, hands down the most charismatic narrators I have ever encountered. Cassandra and her family live in the crumbling ruins of a castle in the English countryside. The Mortmains are very poor and wonderfully eccentric. Cassandra’s father is an author suffering from writer’s block. Her stepmother is a former artist’s model and occasional nudist who goes by the unlikely name of Topaz and her sister, Rose, is very beautiful, somewhat selfish and (much like Lady Mary of Downton Abbey) extremely good at getting her own way.
When an American family moves into a neighbouring property, both the Mortmain sisters fall in love and what ensues is a perfectly charming, often hilarious and overall very touching coming-of-age story. A must read for anyone who had ever dreamt of living in a castle and getting to swim in the moat.
Cassandra Mortmain lives in the shadow of a beautiful older sister. She is somewhat shy and awkward, the kind of girl who constantly ends up blending into the background rather than stealing the limelight.
As such I Capture the Castle wins the Downton Award for “The Most Often Overlooked Younger Sister” – to be presented by Edith Crawley.
Winner of the Downton Award for “Star-crossed Lovers” – to be presented by Anna and Mr Bates.
Ahhhh Atonement. Here is a book that is bound to enthral any Downton fan – a beautifully imagined tale of tragic romance in which a pair of lovers are cruelly separated by misfortune (much like Anna and Mr Bates.)
Atonement is a sweeping family drama, taking place in wartime England. Our narrator, Briony Tallis, begins the novel as a very foolish young girl who makes a terrible mistake, one that ends up having devastating consequences. As she grows up in a country ravaged by war, Briony’s memories of the past shift like a kaleidoscope till she is forced to face a terrible truth.
In Atonement you will find all the key elements that make Downton Abbey the greatest show in the history of television. Secret affairs, a hero wrongly accused of a crime, young lovers torn asunder, sisterly betrayal and brave young men marching off to war. Briony even trains as a nurse, just like Downton’s Sibyl Crawley!
Warning: Do not read without access to a box of tissues.
Cold Comfort Farm
A delightfully comical story following the adventures of Flora Poste, a very modern and extremely confidant young woman who takes it upon herself to improve the lives of her rustic country relatives.
I adore Cold Comfort Farm, however, it does happen to include one of my pet peeves – i.e. people marrying their cousins. It might have been socially acceptable for people to marry their cousins in ye olde English times, but that kind of thing simply doesn’t fly these days. So whenever I encounter a story featuring cousins getting married, I’m forced to imagine fake backstories for the characters in order to make it less icky. For instance, even though in Downton Abbey Lady Mary and Mathew Crawley are (distantly) related, I still like to pretend that Mary was secretly adopted.
Cold Comfort Farm was a runner up for the Downton Award for “Kissing Cousins” however it lost by a narrow margin to Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park*.
Instead, it wins the Downton Award for “Most Hilariously High-Handed Busy-Body” – presented by the incomparable Maggie Smith AKA The Dowager Duchess of Grantham.
I imagine that when the Dowager Duchess was a young woman, she would have been exactly like Flora Poste, taking great pleasure in micromanaging the lives of all her relatives so as to ensure that everything and everyone is settled in just the way she thinks best.
*Unbeknownst to her parents (and Jane Austen) Fanny Price was accidentally switched at birth and is therefore not really related to Edmund.
The Forsyte Saga
Also a runner up in the “Kissing Cousins” category, The Forsyte Saga wins the Downton Award for “Most Scandalous Family” – to be presented by Sibyl Crawley and Tom Branson.
Although no one in the Forsyte family does anything quite so outrageous as to elope with a chauffeur (or smuggle a the body of a recently deceased Turksish Ambassador out of their bed in the middle of the night) they certainly give the Crawley family a run for their money when it comes to dark family secrets and scandalous liaisons.
The Forsyte Saga is three novels worth of epic family drama. Beginning in 1906 and ending in the 1920s, it covers much the same time period as Downton Abbey. This is 20th century English melodrama at it’s best.
And for those who prefer a more non-fictional read I highly recommend Life Below Stairs and Lady Almina and the Story of the Real Downton Abbey: The Lost Legacy of Highclere Castle.
I do not believe I am alone my Downton addiction. In fact, I’m pretty sure that there are plenty of Downton addicts out there who secretly believe they have been displaced in time – people who, just like me, are patiently waiting for someone to invent a time machine so they can finally get back to their real lives as auxiliary nurses and suffragettes (ladies) or fox-hunting English lords and Communist chauffeurs. Personally, I am rather anxious to return to my country estate and claim my title as Duchess of ______shire.
So I implore you, kindred spirits – I know you’re out there – Tell me, what books have I missed? Which authors do you turn to when you’re hankering for a good Downton fix?
And because without him there would be no Downton Abbey…
Snobs/Past Imperfect Omnibus
by Julian Fellowes – writer and creator of Downton Abbey
Edith Lavery is a woman on the make. The attractive only child of a middle-class accountant, she leaves behind her dull job in a Chelsea estate agents and manages to bag one of the most eligible bachelors of the day – Charles Broughton, heir to the Marquess of Uckfield.
But is life amongst the upper echelons of ‘good’ society all that it seems Edith soon discovers there’s much more to the aristocracy than dancing in Anabel’s, shooting small birds and understanding which fork to use at dinner. And then there is Charles’ mother, the indomitable Lady Uckfield, or ‘Googie’ to her friends, who is none too pleased with her son’s choice of breeding partner.
With twists and turns aplenty, this is a comical tale worthy of a contemporary Jane Austen.
Damian Baxter is very, very rich – and he’s dying. He lives alone in a big house in Surrey, looked after by a chauffeur, butler, cook and housemaid. He has but one concern: who should inherit his fortune…
PAST IMPERFECT is the story of a quest. Damian Barker wishes to know if he has a living heir. By the time he married in his late thirties he was sterile (the result of adult mumps), but what about before that unfortunate illness? He was not a virgin. Had he sired a child? A letter from a girlfriend from these times suggests he did. But the letter is anonymous.
Damian contacts someone he knew from their days at university. He gives him a list of girls he slept with and sets him a task: find his heir…
Filed under: Book Recommendations, Book Talk, Contemporary Literature, Historical Fiction, Literary Classic | Tagged: Atonement, Cold Comfort Farm, Downton Abbey, I Capture the Castle, The Forsyte Saga, The Remains of the Day | 5 Comments »