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Posts Tagged ‘Downton Abbey’

ladyvioletI dined today with Lady Violet. Not really, but I did have Sunday dinner with my mother and several of her friends, all of whom now are of the age the Dowager Countess was back then, in 1925. All were looking forward, too, to the sixth and final season of Downton Abbey, which begins its American run on PBS’s Masterpiece Theatre tonight. Although they’ve already bid farewell to Downton Abbey in the UK, with the finale airing Christmas Day, none of the ladies I was with went looking for spoilers on Google beforehand. Not that they don’t know their way around an iPad or a laptop, thank you very much. But they are anticipating the pleasures of reacquainting themselves with the Crawley family, upstairs and downstairs, certain that writer Julian Fellowes can be counted on to deliver the requisite drama.

Indeed, Downton Abbey has been rife with love, loss, scandal and the challenges posed by a changing world, or as the New York Times listed in a quiz about the characters: Shattering Heartbreak, Money Trouble, Forbidden Desire, Child Tribulations, Devastating Betrayal, Physical Misery, Blackmail Travails. Most of the main characters have been beset by multiple woes.

lakehouseDownton Abbey is like a good novel, and not surprisingly, it has been good for publishing, not only with the popularity of official companion volumes, but with the renewed interest in family sagas set in World War I or post-war Britain. I’ve recommended many over the last five years, but the only novel I’ve read recently that sort of falls in that category is Kate Morton’s The Lake House (Atria, digital galley). In 1930s Cornwall, the wealthy Edevane family is visited by tragedy when their youngest child, 11-month-old Theo, vanishes from the nursery during a midsummer’s eve party. The case is never solved, and in 2003, disgraced young police detective Sadie Sparrow, stumbles on the abandoned manor house while visiting her grandfather in Cornwall. She’s intrigued by the case and also by the fact that famous mystery novelist Alice Edevane, a child when her brother disappeared, is still alive but has never returned to Cornwall. Morton shifts the story between past and present as Sadie investigates the cold case and as Alice recalls in vivid detail the events of that fateful summer. It’s a Downton-kind of saga, evoking a bygone time and many family secrets.

turnerhouseBut the Brits are not the only ones who write family sagas. If what interests you is how generations of a flawed family are torn and bound by secrets over time, then check out Angela Flournoy’s absorbing first novel, The Turner House (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, digital galley), which was a National Book Award finalist. The house on Yarrow Street on Detroit’s East Side is about as far away from Downton as you might imagine, but for 50 years it was the home of Francis and Viola Turner and their 13 children. In the 1940s, the neighborhood was a comfortable one for a working-class black family, but by 2008, the recession has wrecked the East Side. The house is nowhere near its mortgaged value, and the clan must make some decisions. Flournoy focuses on three of the Turner offspring — truck driver Cha-Cha, young police officer Troy, and baby sister and gambling addict Lelah — and also includes flashbacks tracing Francis and Viola’s migration from the South. Social history, family history, American history. Also, Shattering Heartbreak, Money Trouble, Child Tribulation, Devastating Betrayal, etc., etc

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summersdayCousin Gail and I are prepping for the fifth season of Downton Abbey, which begins its American run tonight on PBS’s Masterpiece Classic. We’re planning to watch the last episode of season four first and have a cup of official Downton Abbey tea, which I ordered from PBS as a holiday gift. As we all know, the popular series has created a cottage — or better yet, castle — industry of related products, including jewelry, books and even a board game. (I’ll let you know how the latter plays out.)

I generally write a post about the new or re-released books evoking the Downton era, but I haven’t read anything recently not previously mentioned. It being a century now since the Great War, there are a lot of World War I books to read and savor, new and old. My favorite nonfiction chronicles are Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August and Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory. Favorite novels include Philip Rock’s The Passing Bells, Robert Goddard’s In Pale Battalions and Charles Todd’s Bess Crawford series about a British nurse.

Before Todd — a mother-and-son writing team — came up with Bess, they introduced Inspector Ian Rutledge, a Scotland Yard detective literally haunted by his World War I experiences. Through 17 books, Rutledge, with the ghost of the soldier Hamish whispering in his ear, has investigated murders in England and Scotland, many of which are rooted in wartime. A Test of Wills begins the series, and the second, Wings of Fire, is even better, as Rutledge confronts the sudden deaths of three members of a prominent Cornwall family with a tragic history.

Now comes a treat for Rutledge fans, A Fine Summer’s Day (Morrow, digital galley and ARC), a prequel to the series set in the golden summer of 1914. Rutledge is planning to propose to his sweetheart Jean even as an assassin’s bullet kills the Archduke in faraway Sarajevo. As rumors of war begin to swirl, Rutledge is called on to investigate a series of seemingly disconnected murders. Knowing what lies ahead for Rutledge — and England — gives the twisty plot a special poignancy. Everything changed on that one day, and the reverberations are still being felt a decade later as Downton Abbey’s characters carry on, a new world in the making.

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cindersThe new season of the PBS powerhouse Downton Abbey arrives stateside Sunday after having already aired in the UK. If you are the kind of person who likes spoilers, you probably already know via Google what’s up with Lady Mary, sister Edith, ladies’ maid Anna and butler Carson, etc., etc. The rest of us have been making do with reruns and the Downton Abbey cottage industry of books inspired by the series.

Publishers continue to ride the crest of Downton’s popularity, with authorized spin-offs, as well as reprints of similar family sagas (Philip Rock’s Passing Bells trilogy) and newly minted volumes (Fay Weldon’s The New Countess pubbed last month).  Aimed at teens, Leila Rasheed’s At Somerton series, which started last year with Cinders & Sapphires (Disney-Hyperion, purchased e-book), continues this month with Diamonds & Deceit, as Lady Ada and her sister brave the London season on the eve of World War I.

franceBecause 1914 marks the 100th anniversary of the start of the Great War, we can expect more novels set in that era. I’m reading one of them right now — Somewhere in France by Jennifer Robson (HarperCollins, digital galley). When war breaks out, plucky Lady Elizabeth “Lilly” Neville-Ashford, striving for independence from aristocratic society, becomes an ambulance driver “somewhere in France.” She is reunited with her brother’s childhood friend, Robbie Fraser, a field surgeon whose working-class background disqualifies him as a suitor in her parents’ eyes, but the war breaks down some barriers while erecting others. Love and war, duty and honor. Remember in Upstairs, Downstairs when Georgina was nursing in France and found wounded James? Lilly reminds me a bit of Georgina, as well as nurse Bess Crawford in Charles Todd’s ongoing series (A Question of Honor). Her challenges as a female ambulance driver also are similar to those of the title heroine of Anita Shreve’s recent novel Stella Bain.

ashendonW. Somerset Maugham drew on his time as a British intelligence officer during WWI for his collection of short stories Ashenden. It’s not to be confused with Elizabeth Wilhide’s Ashenden (Simon & Schuster, paperback review copy via Shelf Awareness), which takes its name from an English country house, its checkered history chronicled in a series of linked short stories. The first, set in 2010, finds brother and sister Charles and Ros wondering what to do with the old house they have surprisingly inherited. The narrative then skips back to 1775 and the building of the Palladian mansion designed by a Yorkshire architect who gives heart and blood to the project. Years later he returns to Ashenden with his ailing niece, who carves her initials beneath the window sill of the still-unfinished octagonal room. In 1837, the lady of the house takes a lover with scandalous consequences for the family and its servants. The house itself, neglected for decades, is then rescued and restored by the rags-to-riches Henderson clan in 1844, and  it’s a Henderson son’s housemaid’s impulsive theft 40 years later that makes for another tale. Like Downton Abbey, Ashenden becomes a convalescent home for wounded soldiers during World War I. Later, it’s the site of a Jazz Age treasure hunt, then a wartime POW camp. Nature takes its toll until a young couple intervenes in the 1950s, and so on. The episodic structure gives the book a familiar Masterpiece Theatre feel.

tyringhamRosemary McLoughlin’s Tyringham Park (Atria, digital galley), which will be published next month, is much more melodramatic. It begins on a summer day in 1917  when “the pretty one” — toddler Victoria Blackshaw — disappears on the huge estate in Ireland. The handsome stable manager and the kindly housekeeper are the most concerned. “The plain one” — eight-year-old Charlotte — is mute in the aftermath of her sister’s disappearance, ignored by her pompous father in London, and victimized at home by both her selfish mother, Lady Edwina, and scheming Nurse Dixon. Young Charlotte has a tough time in the years ahead, but her own behavior doesn’t always win sympathy, except when contrasted to Lady Edwina, who is such a conniving witch that she deserves disaster. Meanwhile, Nurse Dixon reinvents herself as Elizabeth Dixon in faraway Australia, where she plots revenge against the Blackshaws and eagerly awaits the day she can return triumphantly to Tyringham.  It’s soap opera in a scenic setting. Did I mention that Downton Abbey has been renewed for a fifth season?!

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downton3I’m more than ready for the third season of Downton Abbey to begin Sunday night on PBS. I’ve watched the rerun of season 2 (that last scene of Matthew and Lady Mary gets me every time), looked at the preview clips online, tried to ignore the spoilers coming from across the pond and thumbed through the glossy pages of the Downton Abbey engagement calendar I gave my mother for Christmas. So far, though, I have resisted buying a “Free Bates” T-shirt and/or coffee mug, but I have signed a petition to get the guy out of prison.

passingThen there are the books, and not just the official companion volumes. Last year about this time I wrote “Up with Downton: more reading,” and it was my most popular blog post of the year. I mentioned titles by Kate Morton, R.E. Delderfield, Elswyth Thane and Phillip Rock, among others, noting that Rock’s The Passing Bells trilogy was sadly out of print.

Not any more. HarperCollins is publishing Rock’s novels with the tagline, “Before there was Downton Abbey, there was Abingdon Pryory.” It’s the grand home of the Greville family, headed by the Earl of Stanmore, and World War I changes the lives of  the household, upstairs and downstairs. My favorite characters are the servant girl Ivy and the Grevilles’ American cousin, Martin, who becomes a war correspondent. The story continues in Circles of Time and The Future Arrived.

Fay Weldon, the British novelist and screenwriter who penned the original Upstairs Downstairs pilot, begins a late-Victorian/Edwardian family saga this month weldonwith Habits of the House. It introduces the aristocratic but financially-strapped Earl of Dilberne, who decides to marry off his son Arthur to American meat-packing heiress Minnie O’Brien. The servants evidently have plenty to gossip about, as St. Martins’ Press will publish the second volume in the “Love and Inheritance” series, Long Live the King, in May.

I’m planning to read Weldon’s books because I enjoy her witty writing, although UK reviewers have dubbed this one lightweight dish. It can’t possibly be lighter than American writer T. J. Brown’s Summerset Abbey (Gallery Books, digital arc via NetGalley), the first in a summersettrilogy charting the lives of English sisters Rowena and Victoria Buxton and the governess’s daughter Prudence Tate beginning in 1913. I’m halfway through this soap bubble, and I keep yawning. I’m thinking of abandoning it and watching the 1995 DVD of Edith Wharton’s The Buccaneers, which I reread last year.  Really, Sunday can’t come soon enough.

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Lately it seems as if everything I read reminds me of another book or author. This is not necessarily a bad thing because it often leads to playing a favorite game of “This and That.” You know:  “If you like this, then you should read that.” Or vice-versa.

To wit, if you like Kate Atkinson’s crime fiction, then you should read Emily St. John Mandel’s elegantly constructed new novel The Lola Quartet (Unbridled, publisher’s galley). Mandel offers episodic scenes with no readily apparent connection — a young woman with a baby on the run, high school seniors playing jazz in a truck bed in the hot South Florida night, a New York reporter fictionalizing facts. At the center of this jigsaw-puzzle plot is a photograph of a 10-year-old girl that resembles reporter Gavin’s adult sister and has the same last name as his high-school sweetheart. Returning to Florida’s suburban sea of foreclosed houses and lost dreams, Gavin’s search for the little girl leads to encounters with his past and the other members of his student jazz ensemble, all now coping with degrees of disappointment. Mandel’s noir tale is both perceptive and evocative as Gavin plays gumshoe in the sultry heat, not realizing that his well-intentioned quest has unleashed dangerous consequences.

If you enjoy Kate Morton’s historical novels such as The Distant Hours and The Forgotten Garden, then check out Katherine Webb’s The Unseen (Morrow, paperback review copy). Inspired by the infamous British fairy photograph hoax of 1917, Webb’s engaging tale unfolds as dual narratives. In 1911 Berkshire, the Rev. Albert Canning and his naive wife Hester welcome two strangers to their home — Cat Morley, the new maid with suffragette leanings and a tainted past, and Robin Durrant, a spiritualist looking for dryads in the nearby water meadows. In 2011, reporter Leah travels to the village while researching the identity of a World War I veteran who saved two mysterious letters hinting at 1911’s secret tragedy. But of course . . .

Now, if you can’t get enough of the true-life story of Edward and Mrs. Simpson, and/or the lush period details of  Downton Abbey or The King’s Speech, historian Juliet Nicolson’s Abdication (Atria Books, digital galley via NetGalley) may be just the thing. As the royal romance unfolds in 1936, Nicolson focuses on fictional characters caught up in the wake of the manipulative Wallis, “a woman with an unnaturally wide smile, a doll-like body, high little shoulders and a perfectly enormous head.” Evangeline Nettleton, a clumsy American spinster, is a girlhood friend of Mrs. Simpson, and her attempts to fit in with the royal entourage are cringe-inducing. In stark contrast, 19-year-old May Archer, recently arrived from the West Indies and living with Jewish relatives, forges an independent path as the chauffeur of a MP. No wonder she is attracted to a leftist Oxford student. Nicolson is a better historian than novelist, so her sudsy plot plays out against a fascinating factual tapestry.

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Friends of the blog know I am a “Downton Abbey” fan, addicted to the upstairs-downstairs lives being chronicled on PBS’s Masterpiece Theatre. Last night’s episode was especially entrancing with the return of the viper Vera and the wounding of Matthew and William in France. And didn’t you love dowager Lady Violet doing battle with the vicar?

I’ve seen a number of proposed “Downton Abbey” reading lists for those wanting to know more of the Edwardians and World War I. Mostly they round up the usual suspects in literary fiction, memoir and poetry, which is well and good to a point. Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory is one of my favorite books, and yes, you really should read Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, Robert Lowell’s Goodbye To All That, Vera Brittain’s elegiac Testament of Youth. Be aware, though, they are more downers than “Downton.”

They are not the books I went in search of to satisfy my craving for sudsy family sagas. I am still getting to know the Crawleys. The Swanns, the Grevilles, the Straffords, the Spragues and the Days are all old friends, and thanks to R.E. Delderfield, Philip Rock, Ursula Zilinksy and Elswyth Thane, I know their family trees better than my own. (They also are handily printed at the novels’ beginnings).

Right now, I’m basking in Zilinsky’s The Long Afternoon, delighting again in the details of life at Altondale Park a century ago: “Draperies and portieres and clutter made unending work, especially when combined with sooty coal fires, but housemaids cost less to keep than a hunting dog, and the rumblings of William Morris, who preached natural wood, light-colored walls, and simplicity, would not reach Yorkshire for some years to come, and when they did, would be ignored.”

After I finish with the changing fortunes of aristocratic Toby, his German cousin Felix, and their friend David, the vicar’s son, I plan to move on to Rock’s The Passing Bells and reacquainting myself with the Grevilles, American cousin Martin and housemaid Ivy Thaxton. Since it’s the first book in a trilogy, I’ll be hard pressed to stop with one book.

And then there are Delderfield’s doorstops in his God is an Englishman trilogy. The Edwardian/ World War I story of Adam Swann’s heirs is the third, Theirs Was the Kingdom. And there are seven volumes in Thane’s Williamsburg series, although The Light Heart, following Phoebe Sprague and Oliver Campion from 1902 to 1917, may well be my favorite.

Unfortunately, many of these books are out-of-print, but you can find copies in libraries and used bookstores. Lucky me has them all, as well as Alison McLeay’s The Summer House, Rumer Godden’s China Court, and Kate Morton’s more recent The House at Riverton.

The many new books I have to read are just going to have to wait. Look for me in an English country house. I hope you’ll stay for tea.

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Cecil Valance is a Rupert Brooke-alike. The handsome young poet breezes into the home of fellow Cambridge University student George Sawle in the late summer of 1913, capturing the hearts of both George and his younger sister, Daphne. Before he leaves, he pens a poem about his weekend visit, “Two Acres,” in Daphne’s autograph book. With its paen to the English countryside and lines about lovers’ secret kisses in the shadows, the poem is destined to go down in history, much in the manner of  Brooke’s “The Soldier” (If I should die, think only this of me . . .), quoted by Winston Churchill and memorized by generations of schoolchildren.

The three days Cecil spends with the Sawles and his composition of the poem, including  ripping up one version and discarding it,  is beautifully detailed in the first section of Alan Hollinghurst’s involving  novel, The Stranger’s Child. In these first hundred pages, Hollinghurst constructs such an impeccable foundation for his sprawling family saga, social comedy/history that after I finished the book — another 350 pages — I went back and read this section again with admiration and appreciation.

Not that the next four episodes, which unexpectedly gallop across a century, leaping decades in the process, aren’t praiseworthy. But they miss the vitality of Cecil, or “Sizzle”, as he is known to his aristocratic family and friends. Of course, that’s one of the points Hollinghurst is making in writing of the vagaries of love and fame and mythmaking.

By the time the book’s second section begins at Corley Court, the Valances’ ancestral home, a hideous Victorian monstrosity, a dozen years have passed. Cecil is long dead, killed by a German sniper during World War II. His marble effigy lies in Corley’s chapel — the hands are all wrong, thinks George Sawles — and Daphne has become Lady Valance. She has married Cecil’s younger brother, Dudley, and has two children, Corinna and Wilfred. Also on hand for a “Cecil” weekend are several newcomers to the story, including a young gay artist, Revel Ralph, with whom Daphne is carrying on an intense flirtation, and Sebby, Cecil’s literary executor, who may have been another of his lovers.

Practically every male character in the book is either gay or bi-, and society’s changing attitudes toward homosexuality is a recurring theme throughout the novel. “The love that dare not speak its name” is still muffled in the book’s third section, circa 1970, when the focus shifts to two new characters — Paul Bryant, a bank clerk with literary aspirations, and Peter Rowe, a schoolmaster at Corley, now a prep school. But the closet door is swinging open in the 1980s as Paul pursues Cecil’s aging relatives and friends for a biography that will perhaps out the poet and reveal other Valance family secrets. Is Corinna really Cecil’s daughter? The final section is set in 2008, when domestic partnerships are widely accepted, but questions still remain about Cecil’s life and legacy, which is as it should be in a novel where memory is text and subtext.

Hollinghurst’s writing is lush, lyrical, elegant and witty, occasionally arch and very knowing as he winks at the country house novels of E.M. Forster and Evelyn Waugh in a series of exquisite set pieces, with a nod to such contemporaries as Ian McEwan’s Atonement and A.S.Byatt’s Possession. It won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but if you love Brideshead Revisited and are anxiously awaiting the second installment of Downton Abbey on PBS, find yourself a chintz chair and a copy of The Stranger’s Child.

Open Book: I read a digital galley of Alan Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child (Knopf) via NetGalley. It expires on my Nook this week, which means I’ll soon be buying my own copy.

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