Many people are dreading the end of the season of Downton Abbey on PBS. What will they do without weekly doses of febrile orchestral music swelling over declarations of love in elegant dresses? Publishers have already had the sense to capitalize on Downton fever by putting out companion books – non-fiction guides and memoirs of prewar aristocratic pleasures and the real earls and countesses and maids who inspired the series.
But those of us with anglophilic tastes in literature have been reading nearly identical Downton-like books for years and know that the show takes its inspiration from a number of famous British novels about Edwardian or interwar privilege. Even the “upstairs-downstairs” device – the interweaving of servants’ and lords’ problems in a large house – was a boon to many a novelist long before the 1970s British TV series of the same name. Here are a few: If you crave grand country houses and unchallenged class hierarchy and unrequited love and whispering in the library, read these books.
The Go-Between, by L.P. Hartley (1953), is the model of the dreamy genre. It begins with one of the most famous opening lines in English literature: “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” In 1900, a small boy goes to stay with a school friend with an upper-class family and is humiliated by his lack of breeding. He gets unwittingly involved in the cross-class affair of the young lady of the house. There is a lot about the friction between manners and passion. It will break your heart.
The Remains of the Day (1989) by Kazuo Ishiguro is a pitch-perfect narration in the voice of Stevens, a butler preoccupied with dignity and standards – much like Downton Abbey’s Mr. Carson. His reminiscences concern the 1930s, when he was the head of the household of a Lord Darlington. In the foreground is the butler’s repressed relationship with the equally respectable head housekeeper, Miss Kenton; in the background are the preparations for war and his employer’s troubling connections with fascism. There’s so much repressed love in this it makes Anna and Mr. Bates seem like sybarites.
Loving, by Henry Green (1945), is modernist fiction, dazzling and labyrinthine. It’s set in an Irish country house during the Second World War – the twist is that the lords and ladies are away, and the servants are at play. The lecherous butler is not nearly as respectable as Carson or Stevens, and all sorts of side-door shenanigans transpire. The war looms invisibly over this one too, and that’s a device crucial to Downton and to all the rest of these end-of-an-era romances: There is more tragedy and heroism in a life that’s doomed.
Of course, many grand-house narratives are comedy; they mine the anachronism of the upper classes for its ridiculousness. A Handful of Dust (1934) is arguably Evelyn Waugh’s best novel (certainly better than the religio-sentimental Brideshead Revisited, which is much more famous because it was also a lush British TV series). Its country house, Hetton Abbey, is famously ugly, a Victorian neo-Gothic pile, and the house’s owner, Tony Last (he’s one of the last, see, of these kinds of people) is embarrassingly in love with a way of life that is clearly no longer valued by anyone else. An interesting parallel is that Hetton could be, like Downton, taken over by an obscure relative. (Also interesting: The plot of Downton creator Julian Fellowes’s novel Snobs very closely follows that of A Handful of Dust. It’s a kind of a cover version, to put it diplomatically.) If you like that, you will also laugh at Nancy Mitford’s Love in a Cold Climate (1949), part of a trilogy about isolated aristocratic eccentricity. And if you want sheer comic joy in a grand house, without any war or shadows of any kind, read every single story by P.G. Wodehouse set in Blandings Castle – a paradisiacal place where the absent-minded Lord Emsworth’s passion is his prize pig and his most frightening nemesis his dour Scottish gardener, McAllister.
A similarly enchanted universe exists in the short stories of the real Edwardian gentleman Saki – notably in his most famous, Tobermory, a tale about a talking cat that knows too much about the goings on in his mansion. Absurd plot points such as these should not shock followers of the Downton soap opera, a drama that could be seen entirely as comedy.
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