Monday, April 16, 2012

The Downton Abbey Reading List

I can't even remember how I first heard about Downton Abbey but since the first episode I have watched with delight as this amazing piece of historical fiction has unfolded. I've been captivated by the setting, the beautiful costumes and color palettes. I was not content to wait for the next season without knowing more. Thus began my forage into the world of life 100 years ago.

I've listed a beginning reading list for those interested in reading more about Downton Abbey and the time period. I know there is much more out there, one has only to look at bibliographies at the back of many of these books to know the learning could go on forever. Please leave a comment with any other books you have enjoyed related to this subject.

NOTE: Read these books at your own risk! I am not issuing a blanket endorsement of the contents of these books.

The World of Downton Abbey by Jessica Fellowes is a gorgeous book with lots of photos from the Downton Abbey set and filming. If you want to read something, and not delve into the time period too deeply, this is a great book to choose.

Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey: The Lost Legacy of Highclere Castle
by The Countess of Carnarvon tells the real story of Highclere Castle, which is where Downton Abbey is filmed. It reads like a biography, with a number of pictures scattered throughout. Lady Almina brought her wealth into her marriage, just like Lady Grantham, and Almina turned Highclere into a hospital during WWI, just like in the movie. If you are interested in the true history of this historical fiction drama, you need to read this book.

I have not yet read The Real Life Downton Abbey: How Life Was Really Lived in Stately Homes a Century Ago by Jacky Hyams, but the book purports to tell what life was really like for servants during the Edwardian period. It's on my hold list at the library and I can't wait to peruse it!

I just started Below Stairs: The Classic Kitchen Maid's Memoir That Inspired "Upstairs, Downstairs" and "Downton Abbey"
by Margaret Powell who was in service in the 1920's and writes candidly about her experiences. The book begins slightly autobiographically with Powell's childhood and I have yet to reach her actual in-service memoirs but it appears she has many anecdotes to share.

Julian Fellowes is the mastermind behind Downton Abbey. It was his brainchild and he has written the screen play as well as produced the series. I was introduced to Fellowes for the first time while watching the adorable Scottish series Monarch of the Glen: Complete Collection. Fellowes plays the annoying, slightly daft, country gentleman who lives next door. It's been hard for me to trade that image of him in for the brilliant writer this man really is. I've gone on a Fellowes kick, reading and watching everything I can get my hands on. This man has a handle on the British aristocracy. He knows what he is writing about. I could not put down his book Snobs. This was a modern day Downton Abbey, set in the 1990's in London and the countryside.

Now that I have finished Snobs, I have jumped right into Fellowes second novel, Past Imperfect: A Novel. It promises to be just as good, focusing this time on the debutantes during the 1960's. I hope Fellowes doesn't let me down!

Every few days I read a week in the life of Diary Of A Provincial Lady (Provincial Lady Series)by E. M. Delafield. It is a quaint, 1930's version of Pioneer Woman. It's a glimpse into the middle class of the era.

When I first voiced my interest in finding more books from this time period my friend suggested the bibliography in the back of The Perfect Summer: England 1911, Just Before the Storm. This book tells the story of Britain in 1911, in all its glory and depravity. The bibliography is extensive and very helpful for finding more about this era. The book itself will give you an idea of the moral climate of the period.

Life Below Stairs by Alison Maloney gives another handling of the life of servants during this era. I am reading a book of the same title by Frank E. Huggett which covers Life Below Stairs during the Victorian times.

The American Heiress: A Novel by Daisy Goodwin is a novel telling the story of an American woman who travels to Britain and marries a titled man there. It's meant to tell the type of story that Lady Grantham had, which was not uncommon. I've really just started it and have no idea if I will end up reading all of it. We shall see how it goes.......

The Dressmaker: A Novel by Kate Alcott is historical fiction set on the Titanic. Downton Abbey opens with news of the sinking of the Titanic, so this epic event really begins the whole Downton Abbey story. I have not yet read this book but it comes with high praise from Tatiana de Rosnay who wrote the popular Sarah's Key.

I realized that one of my favorite authors was probably just beginning her career during the Downton Abbey era. Dorothy Emily Stevenson has written many books set in Britain during the 1930's - 1950's I would say. Her books are sweet little stories, what I would call "cup of tea reading". I have enjoyed every one that I have read. Her books are out of print but can still be found randomly online or in used bookstores. They are worth reading.

Elizabeth the Queen: The Life of a Modern Monarch is a modern book, about a modern Queen but it is not altogether removed from Downton Abbey. In fact, in the midst of this book, while reading about Lady Almina Carnarvon, I discovered that one of the Queen's most trusted horse trainers and friends happened to be the 6th (?) Early of Carnarvon and the Queen actually named one of her best horses "Highclere" after Highclere Castle where Downton was filmed. This book is lengthy, and follows the Queen blow by blow through her life and reign. I am enjoying it, and it is appropriate reading for the Queen's diamond jubilee.

Edwardian Life and Leisure by Ronald Pearsall is another book I have waiting on my shelf to give me another facet of what life was like 100 years ago.

The Golden Age of the Country House by Christopher Sykes is filled with photo after photo of life during the Edwardian times at the great Country Houses. One's imagination fills in the blanks and story after story can be made up from the pictures and accompanying notes.

The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady by Edith Holden is a beautiful reproduction of a year's diary collection of sayings, nature notes, and personal events.

To Marry an English Lord by Gail MacColl and Carol Wallace is, apparently, a book that heavily inspired Julian Fellowes in the writing of Downton Abbey.

The Unofficial Downton Abbey Cookbook: From Lady Mary's Crab Canapes to Mrs. Patmore's Christmas Pudding - More Than 150 Recipes from Upstairs and Downstairs by Emily Baines is the first cookbook I have seen dedicated to the series. I was disappointed in the complete lack of photos or illustrations and did feel as if this was hastily put together to benefit from the hype of the series. However, it would give one a start on finding period recipes and inspiration if you were going to host a Downton Abbey themed dinner or tea.

If you would like some ideas on traditional, simple, and festive foods for hosting a British tea party, hop on over to MagCloud and download a free PDF copy of my own recipe booklet London Summer.

An Edwardian Childhood by Jane Pettigrew gives one a good idea of life as the child of middle class to upper class parents. There is talk of nannies, daily routine, parents, school, diet, sickness, toys, and holidays.

Thinking along cultural lines, the Edwardian period and the years following are coming out of the Arts and Crafts Movement in the art world and beginning to move into the Modern Art era.

The composers of the time include: Ravel, Elgar, Mahler, Debussy, Strauss, Sibelius.

I wanted to find out what was happening in church history during this time period. A short synopsis can be found on Wikipedia: Early 20th Century Christian History on Wikipedia. Perhaps some of you are familiar with Amy Carmichael who was a British single woman called to serve in India. A Chance to Die: The Life and Legacy of Amy Carmichael is a moving story and one I read as a teenager. It may be time to read it again.

Gladys Aylward is another single woman missionary around this time.

One of the very best tv series we have watched in recent years has been Edwardian Farm on YouTube. I can't say enough about how much we enjoyed this. If you want to know what life was like for the working farmer, you will learn much, all in the context of beautiful countryside and lots of historical research. Our kids loved this series!

And if you watch Edwardian Farm you'll want to watch Victorian Farm too.

And, in case you need a few more books to add to your list, you might want to check out these other Downton Abbey booklists:

And that's all for now! Be sure to let me know what books you have been enjoying on this subject!

By the way, I am joining in with Ginny over at Small Things for her Yarn/Read Along. Check out all the other reading recommendations her readers are sending in (not Downton Abbey specific).

Please note: this post contains affiliate links.


Rachel said...

What a great list, Heather! I have just finished reading Below Stairs - it gets more and more interesting the further you get into it. And I've just started the American Heiress, although here it is called, My Last Duchess. It's good, but I'm finding it hard to keep going with - could be slightly predictable, and I read a review of it where they compared it to Rebecca (Daphne DuMaurier) and I keep comparing it to that! I'm definitely going to try and find those books by Julian Fellowes. He will always be Kilwillie to me, too! :o)

...they call me mommy... said...

Oh my goodness. What a WONDERFUL list! I'll have to add many of these to my HUGE to-read list! ;) I came over from Coffee Tea Books and Me link...your family is so sweet! I hope to visit more often! :)

Brenda @ It's A Beautiful Life said...

What a wonderful list! You've shared what looks like some great reading rambles, to be sure!

Mrs.Rabe said...


That is an amazing list! Thank you for it! We have enjoyed Downton Abbey and I think I am going to get a few of these books to read and share with my girls.

ps - Came over from Brenda's blog!


Thanks for the great Downton list.

Anonymous said...

Dee from Tennessee

Thank you for such a wonderful list - I am captivated by the series! Are most of your links to Amazon....?? I clicked on about 5 links and none linked ??? It's probably just me since no one else has mentioned it. Thanks again .....I want to read as many as I can of these I can.

Heather L. said...

Thanks Dee! You were right!

Vee said...

Brenda sent me along...

Oh this is such a lovely list for those who enjoy Downton Abbey. Thank you for compiling it.

HeatherMavis said...

Hi Heather L,
I've done a double take when seeing your name at coffeeteabooksandme. My name is Heather also and I was Heather"L" until I got married almost 21 years ago.
Not only your name but a kindred spirit and sister in Christ.
Now, I just have to check out Downton Abbey. I keep reading about it on blogs I love. That may be tricky since I am usually the last on the totem pole in choosing of our viewing material. I am usually too busy to afford worrying about. But no,I will have to take a stand this time. The farmhouse programs you suggested also sound intriguing.