Online Reading Challenge – April

Welcome to the April edition of the Online Reading Challenge! Here is a low-pressure challenge that can help distract you – perfect for this crazy time.

This month our movie inspiration is: Downton Abbey!

Lose yourself in the elegant and refined world of the English upper class where every whim is handled by the staff. Or venture into the world of “downstairs” with the hardworking servants and their endless duties. To give us a wide range of topics to choose from, I’m including the wildly popular Downton Abbey television series, so our time period runs from the early 1900s (just after the Titanic sank) to the 1930s and beyond. A lot happened during that time – a devastating world war, the rise of women’s rights, a decline of the English aristocracy, and the Great Depression. Here are some book suggestions to get you started.

Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey by Fiona Carnavon is a non-fiction account of Highclere Castle, where Downton Abbey was filmed, and its dramatic, true history written by the current Countess. Also available as an ebook.

Below Stairs by Margaret Powell shows, in vivid detail, just how hard those servants worked and how hard their life could be.

American Heiress by Daisy Goodwin. A lot of the English aristocracy fell into financial ruin while trying to maintain large estates. Many of them married their sons to rich American women in exchange for a title. This is the fictional story of one of those young women.

The Poppy Wife by Caroline Scott. The aftermath of World War I and the survivors struggling to come to terms with what they’ve witnessed.

If you’re looking to read a classic, Henry James and Edith Wharton are the gold standard. For modern/newer classics, try Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro about an English estate that is bought by a rich American and how the servants adapt or Atonement by Ian McEwan about how a wrong accusation reverberates through several lives for many years.

For mystery lovers, there are several good series to explore including the Below Stairs series by Jennifer Ashley (servants solving crimes), the Inspector Ian Rutledge series by Charles Todd (recently returned veteran of World War I who struggles with PTSD), the Maisie Dobbs series by Jacqueline Winspear (young woman sets up her own private investigation agency just after World War I).

I’m going to read the first title in the Bess Crawford mystery series by Charles Todd, A Duty to the Dead. Bess is a British nurse serving in France during World War I and in this book, makes a promise to a dying soldier that leads her to a case of murder and intrigue. I’m looking forward to this! What will you be reading this month?

Usually at this point I remind you that there will be displays at each library with lots of title suggestions. However, it looks like we may not be open to the public for some time so instead I’ll remind you that you can still call the library and have a book held for you at the Fairmount drive up window. I also strongly urge you to take advantage of our free ebook service Overdrive which has thousands of titles available to read on your tablet or computer, including many of the titles mentioned here.

Until we meet again, stay safe and keep reading!

Downton Abbey Withdrawal

Blimey! The second series of Downton Abbey is over! Now what!

If you’ve fallen in love with the English period drama like millions of others, you might be feeling a little bereft right now. The good news is that Downton Abbey will be back – filming for the third series began last week. The bad news is, it’ll probably be a year before we see it on the screen. Fill your need for costume, drama and roller-coaster romances set in the bucolic English countryside with some of the following suggestions.

You might start with re-watching Downton Abbey itself; Series 1 and Series 2 are now available on DVD. The exquisite fashions and the breathtaking Highclere House (which stands in for Downton Abbey) never get old.  Or explore the characters and settings in-depth with The World of Downton Abbey by Jessica Fellowes which is filled with behind-the-scenes photos and lots of insight on how the series was filmed.

Another option is to go to the original (and still maybe the best) series about the class system of the English upper class – Upstairs, Downstairs. There are many similarities between the series which both follow the entwined lives of a rich, upper-class family and their servants. The setting here is London (as opposed to North Yorkshire) and starts a few years earlier, but you’ll find the same meticulous attention to detail,  fine acting and addictive story lines. With five seasons and over 60 episodes, you can happily wallow in repressed English drama for weeks. A recent continuation of Upstairs, Downstairs, set in the late 1930s, is interesting but somehow misses the magic formula.

For a quick hit of upper class/lower class, go to Gosford Park, a theatrical release about a weekend holiday at an English country home, set in the 1930s. Like Downton Abbey, it was written by Julian Fellowes and it also stars Dame Maggie Smith (the Dowager Countess in Downton Abbey)

Manor House is a reality show that plucks ordinary, modern people from their lives and transports them to a 1906 country house to play the parts of masters and servants. This is a real eye-opener on just how privileged the upper class was and how the life of a servant was filled with hard work and not much else. Fascinating.

Finally, I’d recommend the recent production of Emma. Most of Jane Austen’s heroines are forced to live in reduced circumstances, but Emma is securely ensconced in a comfortable upper class life. While the time period is 100 years earlier than Downton Abbey and the focus is on the wealthy, you’ll still find witty dialogue, beautiful homes and idyllic countryside.