At long last, “Downton Abbey” is back. If you’re like me, the advent of the new season was met with great rejoicing and a celebratory cup of tea.
I know this show appeals to a wide range of people, but I suspect that moms have a particular affinity for it. I’d venture to guess that most modern moms fantasize about living like Lady Grantham, with her beautiful clothes and every-present lady’s maid and a stunning home that she doesn’t have to clean herself. In reality, our lives are closer to that of the cook, frantically trying to keep multiple pots from burning while snapping at anyone who gets in our way (or is that just me?).
Anyhow, if you can’t get enough of big English homes with elaborate social hierarchies, here are a few books that you might enjoy. Save them for those rare moments of Lady Grantham-like relaxation, and see if you can convince someone to bring you breakfast in bed to make the fantasy complete!
One Pair of Hands by Monica Dickens
This memoir, first published in 1939 , is a gem. The twenty-something Dickens, unsatisfied with her life as a debutante, decided to try a new existence as a cook for the upper classes. She hid her privileged background and embarked on a series of jobs for various employers, both in London and the country. The book is consistently interesting and, at moments, side-splittingly hilarious. Dickens describes her struggles both with the cooking and with the eccentricities of her employers and fellow workers. She has a fabulous turn of phrase (of a bad-tempered milkman, she writes, “he looked capable of watering the milk with the tears of little children”). The chapters where she works as cook for a Downton-style estate are my favorite; her descriptions of the malevolent butler, the dim-witted scullery maid, and the handsome chauffeur (” whose name, appropriately enough, was Jim Driver”), are brilliant.
The Priory by Dorothy Whipple
I have a mad love for Persephone Books, the English publishing house dedicated to reviving “neglected” books. Most of their books are by women; many of them center on home and family relationships, which is surely the reason why so many haven’t gotten the attention they deserve (insert rant about why war is taken seriously as a fictional subject and human relationships are not).
One of their most high-profile authors is Dorothy Whipple, who was a phenomenal novelist. Her book The Priory is the story of an old country home in England, inhabited by a retired Major and his adult daughters, and the changes that ensue when he marries a much younger wife. Whipple makes the servants into fairly major characters in their own right; there is a well-drawn and painful subplot about a bit of a “love triangle,” for lack of a better term, and she brings the character of Nanny to terrifyingly competent life. Whipple was a sharp, sensitive novelist who excelled at describing relationships; the prose carries you along, and 530 pages feel like nothing.
Persephone’s books can be hard to find in the US, but you can order from their website and they arrive quickly. One other cool thing: Each of their books has the same dove-gray cover, but the colorful endpapers inside are different for each book, and each is a reproduction of a textile from the year the book was published. I love that.
The House at Tyneford by Natasha Solomons
I blogged a few years ago about The House at Tyneford, which I couldn’t put down. I won’t repeat the review here, but suffice to say that it’s a most unusual love story. It takes place a few decades after DA — World War II, to be precise — and it’s about social class, the experiences of refugees, and the reinvention of self once everything familiar is gone. And yes, it all happens in a big, beautiful country house.
The Royal Spyness mysteries by Rhys Bowen
The Royal Spyness mysteires, set in the 1930s, are fun and a half. There are eight in the series, and they tell the story of minor royal Lady Georgiana Rannoch, thirty-fourth in line to the throne of England. Georgie is an impoverished royal with a drafty Scottish castle but little cash; luckily, she is rich in adventure as she ends up being drawn into murder mysteries wherever she goes, from English country houses to a royal castle in Transylvania. The books are a great blend of whodunit, humor, and social commentary, with tinges of P.G. Wodehouse. For sheer escapist fun, these can’t be beat.