Family politics, secret lovers, mysterious deaths, thwarted love – it’s all here, dressed up in exquisite Edwardian detail, surrounded by the lush beauty of the English countryside of the wealthy. Downton Abbey brings the trials and tribulations of a noble family and their various servants to life in this wonderful new series from the BBC.
Lord Robert Crawley and his family live in quiet luxury in their beautiful Yorkshire estate supported by a fleet of servants. Their leisurely life is shaken when the sinking of the Titanic takes Sir Robert’s heirs. Because he and his American-born wife have only daughters, in accordance to English law when Sir Robert dies, the estate will now pass to a distant male cousin previously unknown to the family. Prepared to despise the new heir (who actually works for a a living as a solicitor), the family instead find themselves becoming fond of Matthew and his strong views of fairness. Can the eldest daughter Sybil admit to her growing feelings for Matthew, or is she only thinking of saving the family estate when she considers marrying him?
Meanwhile, various dramas unfold below stairs. A new valet, who shares a mysterious past with Sir Robert, is hired and Thomas the footman schemes against him. A maid must help Lady Crawley hide a terrible secret and the loyalty of the servants is tested again and again as their lives intertwine irrevocably with the family.
As you would expect from the BBC, the production values of this series are flawless – costumes, sets, writing, photography and acting are all top-notch. The advantage of the DVD set is that while four shows were seen on PBS earlier this year, there are seven shows available on this DVD as well as making-of specials and commentaries. A sensation in England, a second season set during World War I has been filmed. After seeing the first season, you’ll be anxiously awaiting it’s arrival in the US!
I’m going to cheat a little. All Creatures Great and Small by James Herriot would be my choice, but I love all four in the “All Creatures” series.
The story begins with the author’s arrival in Yorkshire during the Depression when veterinary jobs were scarce. A city boy, James has to quickly learn how to care for horses and cows in very primitive conditions.
He soon learns to love the beauty of the Dales and his eccentric clients. His tales of caring for beloved pets as well as farm animals can be heartwrenching as the patient doesn’t always survive.
There is plenty of humor in his hilarious descriptions of the Yorkshire dialect, way of life, and diet, as well as his volatile boss Siegfried and Siegfried’s irresponsible yet charming brother Tristan.
Not only are the books laugh-out-loud funny but you come to know the village of Darrowby, James, Siegfried and Tristan so well that you never want to leave the little world that Herriot has created.
Travel writers range from morose (Paul Theroux) to the absurdist. Summer seems more appropriate for the latter, so for the unfortunate few out there who haven’t experienced a Bill Bryson book, please do so now.
There’s absolutely no excuse for those of us who live in Iowa, as Bryson is one of our own. He grew up in Des Moines, traveled in Europe in the ’70′s as a young man, and has alternated living in England and the U.S. ever since.
My all time favorite is Notes from a Small Island, in which Bryson affectionately pokes fun at the English in all their eccentricity. He clearly admires the British character – their humility and forbearance, but can endlessly mock their customs and language (place names such as Farleigh Wallop and Shellow Bowells and incomprehensible Scots accents). Those of us who’ve never quite grown up find this hilarious.
The blurb on the British version warns, “Not a book that should be read in public, for fear of emitting loud snorts.”
Feeling a little bit like an English version of Jan Karon’s Mitford series (charming setting, eccentric characters, quirky stories about everyday life) The Beach Street Knitting Society and Yarn Club by Gil McNeil is a fun read, perfect for a lazy afternoon.
Jo Mackenzie’s husband manages to get himself killed in a car accident just a few minutes after telling her that he wanted a divorce, forcing Jo to pack up her life and her two boys and start over. They leave London to take over her Grandmother’s knitting shop in the seaside town of Broadgate Bay. There they encounter overly friendly dogs, resistance to change and a run-down house and shop. Jo’s best friend Ellen, a famous newscaster in London, keeps things from getting too sweet with her sarcastic observations, and a chance encounter with a celebrity adds some glamor. Jo and her boys soon find themselves part of a circle of friends and neighbors that are always willing to help and a new life that is interesting and satisfying.
Knitting fans will recognize the characters that frequent the yarn shop and take part in the new knitting group Jo forms. The dialogue is sharp and witty and Anglophiles will appreciate the many British references (Tesco, Marks and Spencer, Liberty, etc) and the British slang. This is the first title of a projected series (the second in the series has already been published in England) so watch for more of these charming and funny stories.