Friday, June 8, 2012

A Reading "Refill" for My "Downton Abbey" Rx

First off, hello to everyone who stopped by for the first time the other day!! Thank you for taking the time to check out my blog.

Because most of the people I know who like "Downton Abbey" are also big fans of reading (shout out to that lady on the plane), I thought that it might be helpful to recommend some cool books that recapture that "Downton" Abbey espirit.

To Marry an English Lord: or How Anglomania Really Got Started by Gail McCall and Carol McD Wallace is the first book I'd recommend. (This book was out of print until Julian Fellowes mentioned it was one of his inspirations for "Downton Abbey". It is newly reprinted in paperback.) If you are at all interested in how an American gal like Cora could become the Countess of Grantham, then this book is for you! This non-fiction work details the conquests and exploits of Lady Grantham's real life counterparts from among the "new money" families in America. Snubbed by the members of the New York elite "400", these intrepid young women went to Europe and took the social scene by storm. Following their marriages into the aristocracy, their fortunes propped up some of the oldest and most respected families.  But not all of the matches were happy, and this book recounts all of the juicy gossip and scandal of the day. Infidelity, accidental pregnancies, STDs: this all took place 100 years ago? Lots of photographs and factual inserts help the reader keep all the people straight and the text from becoming dry. I bet I can guess what you are thinking: was there a real life counterpart to the late Mr. Pamuk? Read this book to find out!

[Also recommended in this line are four novels by Edith Wharton:  The Buccaneers, The Age of Innocence, The House of Mirth, and The Custom of the Country. I really loved the first three, but I disliked the main character in the last one so much (which is intentional on the part of the author) that I had to put the book down only halfway through. There was a cool article in the New York Times about this subject earlier this year.]

Born to Rule: Five Reigning Consorts, Granddaughters of Queen Victoria by Julia Gelardi is also a great read. Five of Queen Victoria's granddaughters married into other royal families and became queens themselves. Before reading this book I had known about Tsarina Alexandria of Russia, but I didn't know anything about her cousins: the queens of Spain, Norway, Romania, and Greece. Each of these (essentially English) princesses has a different story on their way to the throne, and they are fascinating people. The period of time in which their stories took place is fascinating too. Mix the girls in with a big dash of their boy cousins/brothers, Wilhelm of Germany and George of England, and World War I becomes one big bad dysfunctional family nightmare. (Of course, I am oversimplifying, but it did made for some nasty family politics.) If this was a book about just one of these ladies, I would say that would be pleasantly interesting, but the fact that Gelardi draws comparisons in the experiences of five women of this generation in the broader context of the Great War makes the book really appealing. But it isn't just the war that is interesting; the dramatic divergence in family life is compelling. (One of the biggest issues of interest to me was the disparity in the way that two of the royal families dealt with the hemophilia issue when it hit.) This is relatively fast read for a biography, and it isn't too dry or detail heavy and there are lots of photographs.

I love a good murder mystery novel, provided it isn't too bloody and I can't figure out who the killer is in the first five chapters. I have just started reading the Maisie Dobbs mystery series by Jacqueline Winspear, and even though I am only one book into the series, I am totally in love! After the death of her mother, young Maisie starts out in service as a housemaid in the London home of Lord & Lady Compton. Her kindly employers recognize her intelligence and encourage her to continue her education. She is admitted to university at Cambridge, but leaves at the start of WWI and joins the front lines as a nurse. Following the war, she apprentices under the brilliant investigator Maurice Blanche, returning to London upon his retirement and setting up as a private investigator in her own right. Maisie's first solo case seems at first to be a straightforward case of infidelity, but it leads her to a suspicious home for injured veterans of the war, making her address her own wartime emotional scars. Part gumshoe/part therapist, Maisie's unique approach to solving a mystery is less Sherlock Holmes and more Miss Marple with Nancy Drew's energy and a hint of the mystic. (The way that Maisie Dobbs is described actually makes me think of Michelle Dockery, who plays Lady Mary Crawley. If ever there was a Maisie Dobbs movie, she'd be perfect!)

Not only am I a fan of detective novels, but I am also a fan of historical fiction. The next set of books I am recommending combines both of these loves. They are the Robin Paige Victorian-Edwardian mysteries, written by husband and wife team Bill and Susan Albert. These twelve mystery novels, set at the turn of the 20th century, feature amateur sleuths Kate Ardleigh Sheridan, an Irish-American "lady novelist", and her husband, Sir Charles Sheridan, an amateur pioneer in forensic science. The stories are set all over England, so you get a feel for the landscape of the country, and feature a great number of historical figures as characters. I feel that they do a great job tying together people, locations, and mystery to make the stories believable. You can tell that the Alberts have done their research (they always include a little of the real history at the end of the book along with a bibilography). Some of the people the Sheridens "meet" as they move among society include: Beatrix Potter, Jennie and Winston Churchill, Lilly Langtry, Guglielmo Marconi, and Bertie, the Prince of Wales. These books are really fun and fast reads, perfect to bring with you on your next vacation.

So these are my summer fun reading recommendations for folks who want to take their Anglophilia with them on the road. If you have read/end up reading these books, I'd love to hear what you think of them and would appreciate any suggestions of books that you might have!

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