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What to read while you wait for the Downton Abbey movie
DEAR me! The Downton Abbey movie trailer is here, and oh, it's a tantalising montage of our favourite British mansion in all its delectable primness. But we must be patient; the film doesn't hit theaters till the autumn. Don't despair. As the Dowager Countess once said: "Stop whining and find something to do." Here's a little something: Read some books that will prepare you for your first glimpse of the Crawleys on the big screen. There's a book out there for just about every kind of Abbey-phile - history buffs, mystery readers, even cat lovers and zombie zealots.
For history buffs:
Anyone who has ever fancied herself as the wife of a British royal will want to dive into Anne de Courcy's The Husband Hunters: American Heiresses Who Married into the British Aristocracy (St Martin's). De Courcy writes that between 1870 and 1914, 454 young American women married titled Europeans. Among these "dollar princesses" are Jennie Jerome (Winston Churchill's mother), Consuelo Vanderbilt and May Goelet - all contemporaries of Downton's Lady Cora. If you've read The Buccaneers by Henry James, you'll understand the author's conclusions about the roles mothers played in this strange game of trans-Atlantic weddings.
For fiction fans:
Greta Goldbaum, the heroine of House of Gold by Natasha Solomons (Putnam), is neither a dollar princess nor a Dowager Countess but still she must grapple with societal and familial expectations when it comes to marriage. At 21, Vienna-raised Greta chafes against her arranged betrothal to an English cousin. Her fortunes change drastically with the start of World War I, when she becomes a vital link between her European banking family and the British institutions less affected by combat and inflation. The Goldbaums bear a strong resemblance to the historical Rothschild dynasty: "Money has no passport and every passport," says Greta's brother Otto.
For stately home lovers:
Blenheim, Chatsworth, Longleat, Knole: All of these great British homes appear in The Country House: Past, Present, Future, a splendid Rizzoli coffee-table book by David Cannadine and Jeremy Musson. While Cannadine writes frequently about the aristocracy, in this book there is at least a peek at the "downstairs" necessary for the proverbial "upstairs": kitchens, servants' quarters, stables and more are on display in photographs from The National Trust and private collections. The book features essays on the changing role of the country house as well as a frank discussion of enslaved people and their roles at these estates.
For mystery junkies:
The Mitford Murders, by Jessica Fellowes (Minotaur) should make Abbeyphiles feel quite cosy, as Fellowes is the author of the five Downton Abbey companion books. (Her Uncle Julian is better known to most of us as Downton creator Julian Fellowes.) The former Country Life columnist brings all of her experience living among the upper crust to this debut, set in 1920 Oxfordshire at the historical Mitford Family estate of Asthall.
The fictional foil to the famous sisters is Louisa Cannon, whose position as a nursemaid and chaperone places her close to one of the family wordsmiths, Nancy Mitford, who is 16 at the time of the story. When a goddaughter of Florence Nightingale is killed on a train, Louisa and Nancy join forces to find out why. With nearly as much period detail as an episode of Downton, this delightful romp satisfies like a cup of strong nursery tea accompanied by a Battenburg cake.
For travel enthusiasts:
Phoebe Taplin's Oxford Film Locations: A Walking Guide to Harry Potter and Others (Pavilion) may not mention Downton Abbey in its title but this detailed resource takes readers through Bampton, known to us as the village of Downton; Cogges, site of Yew Tree Farm; and Shilton, site of the Red Lion pub. And the book fittingly encourages walking, with itineraries that always include stops for refreshment - important when you don't have Daisy packing picnic hampers to put in the boot. The point to remember is that Oxford and its environs are so beautiful that of course the new millennium's lushest, most romantic television series had to be set there.
For zombie zealots:
Zombie Abbey, by Lauren Baratz-Logsted (Entangled) is perhaps this year's funniest YA mashup novel. The three teenaged Clarke sisters, Kate, Grace and Lizzy, are dying for something to happen in their cosseted lives. The book begins slowly, but when the servants start to natter about an unusual death, the Clarke girls and their comrades (including a stable boy and a kitchen maid) have more to worry about than marital machinations - like, for example, aristocrats, their staff, villagers and a few outsiders coping with flesh-chomping undead. Yes, there's a bit of Pride & Prejudice mixed in too - Baratz-Logsted tips us off with the name Lizzy, after all.
For cat-video addicts:
The first Downton Tabby (Simon & Schuster), published in 2013 and written by Chris Kelly, hewed closely to the outline of a family saga set in a stately home. This year we have another, wholly different Downton Tabby, by Chris Ellis (Skyhorse). It's a funny little book that promises to reveal "What Your Cat Really Thinks While You Watch TV". Although again, patience is a must: the book is not out until September. Yes, the book is slight, but that's because Your Cat speaks in captions, not essays. "I think I'm lying on the remote, but I'm too comfy to move," thinks one stretchy feline and really - who among us has not thought the same from time to time? WP
- The writer is editor, most recently, of The Books That Changed My Life: Reflections by 100 Authors, Actors, Musicians and Other Remarkable People.