Books to Get You Thinking

Downton Abbey, the captivating television drama series aired by Public Television on Masterpiece Theater, recently completed a resoundingly successful run of its second season.  A joint British/US production, written by Julian Fellowes, the show is set in Edwardian England in the early 1900s and follows the fortunes and tribulations of the Earl and Countess of Grantham, their family   and the entourage of servants residing in the picturesque estates of Downton Abbey. It is set during the time when England was caught in the throes of World War I and the air was rife with the whisperings of social change. The show has won numerous awards including the Emmy and the Golden Globe, and has been viewed by millions of eager fans all over the world. The spectacular success of the show has ignited an avid interest for books relating to British aristocracy and the Edwardian era of British history.  With Season Three set to air only in early 2013, Downton Abbey fans have plenty of time to soak up on their readings. Here is a selection of books from the Mercer County Library that will transport readers to the bygone era and world of Downton Abbey.

The World of Downton Abbey by Jessica Fellowes                                                                                      This delightful book, written by Jessica Fellowes, a journalist and niece of the series producer, Julian Fellowes is more than just a companion volume to the popular drama series.  Undoubtedly, the volume contains breathtakingly beautiful photos and in depth information regarding the writing, acting, and filming of the series, but more importantly it is a book rich in historical detail that presents a fascinating picture of England in the 1900s, both before and after World War I. There are enthralling details about Highclere Castle that is featured as Downton Abbey as well as glimpses of personalities who inspired some of the characters of Downton Abbey. Readers also get a peek into fashion, etiquette and how life was lived in the great houses of British aristocracy at the turn of the twentieth century.

Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey: The Lost Legacy of Highclere Castle by Fiona Carnarvon
Highclere Castle in England where a large part of Downton Abbey was filmed has been home to the Carnarvon family through many successive generations. In this engaging, well researched historical biography, the author, Fiona Carnarvon draws on the extensive archives of the Castle which include letters, memoirs and pictures to paint a vivid portrait of the life of the charming Lady Almina, the fifth Countess of Carnarvon, who serves as the inspiration for the character of Lady Cora Crawley of Downton Abbey. While following the engaging story of Lady Almina, her success as a hostess in fine society , and her  brave efforts to convert her home to a hospital during the First World War, the reader is treated to the rich spectacle of life in England in the 1900s, an era that has long since faded and yet holds timeless appeal .

Below Stairs: The Classic Kitchen Maid's Memoir That Inspired Upstairs, Downstairs and Downton Abbey by Margaret  Powell
Born in 1907, Powell was forced to leave school to support her family and started work as a kitchen maid in an upper class home at the age of 14 . Working her way up to the position of a cook she eventually succeeded in escaping the drudgery of long hours and hard work as a servant by getting married and raising a family. This charming and engaging memoir first published in 1950,  takes readers back to early twentieth century England  when  class stratification was an integral part of the social landscape and very different lifestyles prevailed  in different parts of the same mansion – the “upstairs” where the aristocrats lived in opulently  furnished quarters attended by maids and footmen and the “downstairs” that housed the extensive staff of servants who kept the house running through grueling hours of cleaning, cooking and serving the masters.

Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy by David Cannadine                                                                 For almost 500 years the English political and social scene was dominated by the aristocrats , a class of the wealthy and privileged, their power originating from ancestral inheritance and ownership of land.  In this deeply researched and well documented book, the leading British historian, David  Cannadine examines the changing landscape of England’s class system over time, covering landmark events that include the Two World Wars, each of which brought about major economic changes. The evolving landscape was in turn reflected in significant shifts and turns in both the social and political role of the aristocracy. Faced with an escalating financial  burden partly due to low agricultural yields juxtaposed with high levels of taxation,  as well as the increasing participation of people in voting and governance, there was a gradual erosion in the political and social standing of British aristocracy as well as in the splendor and grandeur that defined the magnificent estates and the upper classes that owned them.

- Nita Mathur


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