A Latter-day Bluestocking

For the love of reading

Tag: Downton Abbey

Downton Abbey Inspired Reading

Downton Abbey

Image via Wikipedia

Today the New York Times published the article, If You’re Mad for ‘Downton,’ Publishers Have Reading List which describes the phenomena of “Downton Fever” and how booksellers and publishers hope to cash in with Downton-related books convinced that viewers of the program are likely to be great book readers as well.

I am one of those mad people who when I become obsessed with something I tend to run out and devour every book I can lay my hands on, whether it be history, fiction, or pictorial.  I enjoy reading the contemporary authors of the time.  The period covered in Downton Abbey is an especially fruitful period in English literature with such authors as Arthur Conan Doyle, Rudyard Kipling, Ford Madox Ford, James Barrie, Thomas Hardy, H.G. Wells, E.M. Forster, Kenneth Grahame, and A.A. Milne leading the pack.

But the books I really love to read are the books on the history of a certain period.  I religiously buy or borrow books to enhance my experience of a work of fiction or film or to learn more.  For example my shelves are filled with books on the Regency because of my love of Jane Austen and I read any book that crosses my path on Tudor history because of my admiration for Elizabeth I.  Downton Abbey has had a similar effect with one small twist; I already own many books about the period.  Of course, I can always use more and I have recently placed on my “to-get” list:  Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey:  The Lost Legacy of Highclere Castle by the Dutchess of Carnarvon, Nancy Mitford’s Love in a Cold Climate, Parade’s Endby Ford Madox Ford, and The Great Silence:  Britain From the Shadow of the First World War to the Dawn of the Jazz Age by Juliet Nicolson.

Inspired by the article in the Times I thought it would be fun to share some of the books from my personal library that I think will bring enjoyment and understanding of the society, politics, and history of the period inhabited by the characters of Downton Abbey.

The Proud Tower and The Guns of August by Barbara W. Tuchman are two tome-like volumes which wonderfully describe the world during the years 1890–1914 and the years during World War I.  They are highly readable despite their daunting size and I recommend them highly.

The Perfect Summer by Juliet Nicolson is a well-written history of the English summer of 1911 before the world changed forever with the advent of World War I.

The Decline and Fall of the British Empire 1781–1997 by Piers Brendon a book which describes how after the loss of the American colonies Britain rebuilt itself to become one of the greatest and most diverse empires the world has ever seen.  It is the Empire that the aristocratic families of the Downton Abbey era would have known and would have believed to be unassailable in world authority and power.

The Long Week-End:  A Social History of Great Britain 1918–1939 by Robert Graves and Alan Hodge is a book describing the social history of Britain between the wars.

The Edwardians by Roy Hattersley is about the brief but golden period during the reign of Edward VII (r. 1901–1910).  It was an era of stellar personalities, social and political change, advances in technology, and flourishing literature and music.  A perfect back-drop to Downton Abbey.

The Polite Tourist:  Four Centuries of Country House Visiting by Adrian Tinniswood recounts the history of tourism to England’s country homes.

The history of housekeeping in a large country house is the topic of Behind the Scenes:  Domestic Arrangements in Historic Houses by Christina Hardyment.  Many of the details in this book would be quite familiar to Mr. Carson, Mrs. Hughes, Anna and the other servants of Downton Abbey.

The conventions of country house lifestyle and culture fill a few very informative chapters in British Tradition and Interior Design by Claudia Piras and Bernhard Roetzel.

And for an enticing smorgasbord of beautiful images and information about Seasons 1 and 2 of Downton Abbey and its era The World of Downton Abbey by Jessica Fellowes is a must!

Happy Reading!

A Book: The Gift That Keeps on Giving

It has been several days since Christmas and the flurry of paper and string and bows have had time to settle, candy canes have been eaten, the tree has become a tinder box, and finally I can settle down to read the books I received as gifts.  I love receiving books (or money so I can purchase them on my own).  I remember at a young age being thrilled to find books in my stocking; even once reading a tome in its entirety in the wee hours before waking my mother at a more civilized hour.  Yes, my sister and I were quite courteous on Christmas morning!

This year, without fail, I found a few books under my tree and in my stocking.  My loved ones certainly know that diamonds may be a girl’s best friend but there is nothing like a book to make this girl’s heart skip a beat.  So, here it is my Christmas books and with any luck I’ll be engrossed in one of these as the ball falls in Times Square to ring in 2012.  (Hint:  It will most likely be the P.D. James).

Firstly, everyone knows my obsession with Jane Austen so it wouldn’t truly be a MERRY Christmas without a little Jane.  Lady Vernon and Her Daughter by Jane Rubino and Caitlen Rubino-Bradway is a wonderful re-working of Austen’s epistolary novella Lady Susan.  I have read this before (I borrowed it from the library) and enjoyed it so much that I recommended it to be read by my Jane Austen reading group.  I suppose Santa thought I should have my own copy.  I also received from a friend, who occasionally leaves offerings of books, the recently released murder mystery by P.D. James Death Comes to Pemberley.  Clearly he understands that goddesses (or undervalued administrators) need to be kept happy.  Thank you so much, it is much appreciated.

A very fun book which will have pride of place on my coffee table is The Word Made Flesh:  Literary Tattoos from Bookworms Worldwide.  All I have to say is WOW!!  Were I to get a tattoo (read lack of bravery here) it would definitely have to be something literary inspired because I have never seen anything so cool.

Cover of "Tinkers"

Cover of Tinkers

Because everyone should read a Pulitzer prize winner and it was my pick from the Christmas book swap I have Tinker by Paul Harding.  Flipping through the pages it promises to reaffirm my love of the written word.  This is a first novel, and a seemingly powerful one.  The first line is staggering, “George Washington Crosby began to hallucinate eight days before he died.”

I also received and already finished The World of Downton Abbey.  There isn’t really much to say here except the book is a wonderful companion piece to the television series.  I love this book.  Just turning its pages brings me much joy and happiness.

My obsessions with Jane Austen and Downton Abbey are mediocre compared to that with good penmanship.  I am always cursing the decline of the art of writing (with a pen and paper); for crying out loud they don’t even teach children cursive writing anymore in schools!  It is an abomination.  Needless to say I am obsessed with handwriting.  I practiced for hours as a child and pride myself on my penmanship to this day.  I insist on using fountain pens and writing (almost daily) in my Moleskine journal and handwriting notes and cards.  I am quite snobbish about this so it is with great delight that I have received Script & Scribble:  The Rise and Fall of Handwriting.  Kitty Burns Florey is a kindred spirit in that she too professes to be a “penmanship nut”.

And because a girl cannot live on books alone I will get frequent use from reading my 2012 Zagat Guide for New York City.

Truly, books are the gift that keeps on giving!

The cast of Downton Abbey visit New York and I was there

Highclere Castle

I was one of 25 lucky facebook winners to attend a very special PBS hosted, season 2 screening of Downton Abbey and cast Q&A.  I was shocked that I had won (I never win anything) and was excited, very excited.  On December 15th I attended with my 10 year old son, Edward.  I was slightly worried that he wouldn’t have fun, that this would be one of those things that children get dragged to and are miserable the entire time.  I have brought him with me to Jane Austen events and he’s always behaved admirably but lacked a certain enthusiasm, understandably so.

We have watched several costume dramas together with middling success.  He has seen a few episodes of season 1 of Downton Abbey with me but I never noticed any great enthusiasm for the show.  He usually played with his Legos at the same time and I found it hard to discern if he paid any attention.

Apparently he was!  He was excited, to say the least to attend this once-in-a-lifetime event.  His favorite character is the Dowager Countess of Grantham, deliciously played by Maggie Smith.  He thinks her witty and sarcastic one-liners incredibly funny.  He despises all the wrong sort (Thomas and Mrs. Bates) and loves all the right sort (Anna and Matthew Crawley).

The event, itself, generated a lot of excitement and anticipation and my son enjoyed himself immensely.  While partaking of the hors d’oeuvres and beverages he very comfortably discussed with two very nice young ladies his interest in science.  Upon hearing this, they stated that they worked for GE and that perhaps if he worked very hard and did well in school he could work for GE as an R&D scientist one day.  My son was being recruited at the age of 10!

Once seated in the auditorium, the room darkened and the familiar theme music announced the start of the screening my son began applauding enthusiastically.  And as the view of Downton Abbey came up on the screen my son leaned into me and asked, “Mom, wouldn’t it be fun to live in that house?”  I smiled and had to agree with him that it undoubtedly would be very fun.  I believe he enjoyed the screening as much as I did.  Afterwards, he remained engaged during the Q&A, clapped and chortled and shivered with excitement.  All I could think was how watching costume dramas when I was his age on Masterpiece Theatre fueled my obsession with all things English and how funny that these kinds of things can be passed to younger generations just through exposure.

Afterwards, we patiently waited in line to meet the stars of our favorite show, Hugh Bonneville, Elizabeth McGovern, Michelle Dockery, Dan Stevens, and Joanne Froggatt.  They were gracious and generous with their time and were genuinely impressed that Edward was a fan.  While waiting on the line, PBS cameras asked if they could interview him (he was the only kid present).  He handled it like a champ!  He answered their questions intelligently and with the unaffected enthusiasm of a 10 year old.  I was amazed by his poise (I certainly never had his self-confidence when I was his age).  Afterwards, he told me how nervous he was; I told him he handled it like a pro.

All in all, this was an amazing experience on so many levels.  It was nostalgic because PBS has always been a favorite television station of mine, I was overwhelmed with feelings of infectious joy and camaraderie, and the connection with my son over a mutual interest is incomparable.

Here he is in the edited footage from that evening:

Downton Abbey

Ah, if there’s a cure for this, I don’t want it.  If there’s a remedy for this, I’ll run from it.  Think about it all the time; never let it out of my mind.  Cause I love Downton Abbey.

For those not familiar with it (have you been under a rock?) it is an English costume drama set on an aristocratic estate and follows the trials and tribulations of the fictitious Grantham family and their servants in the early 20th century.  Season 1 begins in 1912, April 15, 1912, to be precise and the family is shocked to have learned that the male heir to the entailed (all Jane Austen fans will know what this is) estate has died in the sinking of the RMS Titanic.  This throws the household into a dither because the next in line to inherit is in “trade”.  This is very hard to stomach by the three unmarried daughters who are not entitled to inherit.  The season ends as war is declared against Germany on August 4, 1914.  It has a stellar cast, beautiful clothes, exquisite manners, and a stunning country house.  It spotlights the last hurrah of the British upper classes before the devastation of war.  Right from the start, I was hooked.  I’ve always been a sucker for this type of entertainment and no one does this form of drama like the Brits.

Poor little rich girls

So now I’ve been watching Season 2 on my laptop.  It is not something I do normally and usually am against watching anything on such an inadequate screen.  But for this I made an exception.  It could not be helped; it simply had to be done.  And I have not been disappointed.  Season 2 takes place during the years 1914–1918 when Britain is torn apart  by the brutality of trench warfare and English society, class structure, and way of life changed forever.  I cannot wait for the PBS airing in January so I can watch it properly.

Maggie Smith (a real scene stealer) as the Dowager Duchess, Lady Grantham is delicious!

 It is a soap opera and a well done one despite a few too convenient and shoddy plot lines.  So no, I do not want a cure for this obsession with Downton Abbey.  There are few pleasures in life and this is an extraordinary one. 

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