Another Saturday, another peak at my bookshelves … this time with a little Downton Abbey inspiration.
Now, Sybil, dear, this sort of thing is all very well in novels, but in reality, it can prove very uncomfortable. (Violet Crawley, Dowager Countess of Grantham)
I’m a lucky lady. Not only will my husband happily watch hour after hour of PBS Masterpiece Classics like Downton Abbey, but he’ll put up with my distracting, far-too-knowledgeable-for-my-own-good asides.
I spent ten years of my life studying the literature and culture of early twentieth-century Great Britain, so I get a tad opinionated about historical accuracy (for instance, Downton’s portrayal of master/servant relations is decidedly rosy, and no one would have disapproved of Edith’s marriage to an older man, there simply were not enough eligible men left alive after the war).
A bit of Ireland’s tumultuous history is reflected in the Tom/Sybil plotline. If you’d like to take a closer look, I’d recommend Elizabeth Bowen’s novel The Last September. Bowen was, herself, the daughter of an Irish Big House. Many of her neighbors and friends lost their great houses in the literal flames of Ireland’s struggle for independence from British colonial rule.
Bowen wrote her novel only a few years after the historical events she describes, but in those years the entire culture of Anglo-Irish landed gentry had all but vanished. For the Anglo-Irish, whose Protestant ancestors had arrived from England hundreds of years before to claim Irish land in the name of the British government, it really was the “last” September. Irish independence left them, metaphorically and often literally, homeless.
Here, there were no more autumns, except for the trees. … Next year, the chestnuts and acorns pattered unheard on the avenues, that, filmed over with green already, should have been dull to the footsteps – but there were no footsteps. Leaves … banked formless, frightened,
against the too clear form of the ruin. (from The Last September)
Interested in a country house novel for the beginning reader? Yes, there is such a thing! Of course, the main characters are, as one would expect, not people but mice. My daughter loves Tumtum & Nutmeg: Adventures Beyond Nutmouse Hall by Emily Bearn. Again, this is that rare combination: funny, clever, and easy-to-read.
No list of country house fiction would be complete without a ghost story. The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters was a finalist for the Man Booker Prize (I almost always love the Booker Prize winners).
This novel about a declining family, their haunted manor house, and the village doctor who becomes entangled in their fate is smart, subtle, and atmospheric. Like most good, literary ghost stories the ghost itself is almost beside the point. In this portrayal of post-WWII Britain and the decline of the old family homes, it’s easy to imagine a Downton Abbey sequal in which that formerly bustling estate is inhabited only by Lady Mary, one aging servant, and the ghosts of a once-glittering past.