Recently I have been putting everything else aside on Sunday evenings so I can be in front of my television at 9 p.m. What has captured my interest — Downton Abbey! This Masterpiece series on PBS explores the lives of an aristocratic English family, the fictional Crawleys, and the lives of their servants dramatizing the social life and customs on a vast country estate in the early part of the last century.
There is Robert, the honorable and proper Earl of Grantham, Cora, his American heiress wife and their gorgeous headstrong daughters. Outside of the immediate family there is Violet, the incorrigible Dowager Countess, Carson, the grand butler, Branson, the radical chauffeur and Thomas, the wayward footman. Adhering to strict social codes for both “upstairs” and “downstairs” had always brought a kind of comfort to the household but gradually their world is disturbed by outside economic and political forces as World War I looms.
The characters, the history, the period dress, the lovely English accents – I just can’t get enough! Fortunately, several nonfiction books have been providing me with related reading entertainment between Sundays.
Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey: the Lost Legacy of Highclere Castle is written by Fiona, Countess of Carnarvon, the real-life, present-day countess of Highclere Castle where the series is filmed. Using the family archives, she tells a story of family life at the Castle that is in some ways more fascinating than that of the fictional family in Downton Abbey.
If you are interested in the servant’s point of view, Rosina Harrison recounts in detail her years as a lady’s maid and her intimate knowledge of extravagant lifestyles in Rose: My Life in Service to Lady Astor.
The Perfect Summer: England 1911 Just Before the Storm by Juliet Nicolson brings to life England during the summer of the coronation of George V, the event which brought the Edwardian era to a close. Focusing on individuals, she describes the high life of the rich and aristocratic made possible by a variety of servants. She also documents the indifference of industrialists toward their workers as well as the growing women’s suffrage movement.
The second season of Downton Abbey ends soon but I plan to read more about this period while I wait for season three. On my list are: The World of Downton Abbey by Jessica Fellowes, the companion edition to the series, and The Beauty and the Sorrow: An Intimate History of the First World War by Peter Englund which promises to tell the experiences of twenty ordinary people and how the war affected them in their daily lives.