Whatcha Reading, Downton Abbey?
Longtime inReaders will remember this fan favorite by WWI-era expert, author Jacqueline Winspear. With Dowton Abbey’s long-awaited return to Sunday nights (9 p.m. on WETA), we thought it was worth sharing with newcomers:
Those of you familiar with my novels will know I am not only deeply interested in the history of the Great War – as World War One came to be known – but the ways in which British society changed between the wars, particularly the lives of women. The social strata showed signs of crumbling both on the home front and in the trenches (at the same time as the British empire was looking a bit dodgy), and the number of young men lost to war, or forever to live with devastating physical and psychological wounds, scarred a nation. But people still found time to read, and many books considered classics today were published in the war years, 1914-1918. James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, H. Rider Haggard, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Jack London, Mark Twain, Edgar Rice Boroughs – there was something for almost everyone to be found in a bookshop or the local lending library.
So what were our friends at Downton Abbey reading? And if they lived today, what books might be on the nightstand? Given the extent of the Downton Abbey library, there was plenty to choose from in the way of classical texts, and I would imagine new books weren’t much of a stretch for the wealthy family – they might well have had them sent up from a London store such as Hatchards in Piccadilly, or perhaps Cora, Lady Grantham and one of her daughters might shop there for the family before taking tea at Fortnum and Mason next door. Cora always has a book to hand when she’s in bed, and we know the Earl of Grantham is happy to loan a book to a member of the household staff – so they’re probably a well-read group, overall. Here’s a list of what some of the key personalities at Downton Abbey might have been reading.
The Earl of Grantham: In 1914 H.G. Wells published An Englishman Looks at the World. I think Grantham would have been intrigued by the title and would have had a copy to hand. In addition, in 1915, W. Somerset Maugham published what is considered his masterpiece, Of Human Bondage – Grantham would be drawn to the book, and I can see him passing it on to the doctor, given Maugham’s background in medicine. Of more recent fare, Grantham would enjoy James Herriot’s Yorkshire, about his home county.
Cora, Lady Grantham: She’s a reader, isn’t she? I think she would want to get her hands on Of Human Bondage fairly quickly, but she’s probably reading Willa Cather’s The Song of the Lark, published during the war years. Though married to an English aristocrat, Cora likes to be reminded of home, which for her is America. She might also have a copy of Virginia Woolf’s The Voyage Out (1915) on her bedside table. And if she could reach into the future, she would take up a copy of Anne Morrow Lindberg’s, A Gift from the Sea.
Lady Mary: She has a lot on her mind, does our Mary. I think she might be turning to Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen, to give her some hope that all will turn out right for her in the end. And she probably couldn’t resist Rebecca West’s The Return of the Soldier, published in 1918.
Lady Edith: Poor Edith thinks she’s going to be one of the two million post WW1 women for whom the chances of marriage are lost, given the number of young men killed (that statistic won’t be revealed until the 1921 census though, but by the end of the war it’s clear that there will be more perpetual “bachelor girls” in society). She’s probably reading Cicely Hamilton’s Just to Get Married, and perhaps has ordered a copy of The Bachelor Girl’s Guide to Everything by Agnes B. Mall.
Lady Sybil: Sybil has a copy of The Rainbow, by D. H. Lawrence – but she’s keeping it from her parents – and she would doubtless have bought a copy of Beyond the Marne by Henriette Cuvru-Magot one of the first French nurses to serve in the war. In later years she’ll read Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain.
Violet, The Dowager Lady Crawley: With her interest in snagging every prize at the local flower show, she’ll be turning the pages of Gertrude Jekyll’s Color Schemes for the Flower Garden – but I bet if she could whip into a bookstore now she would grab a copy of Elizabeth George’s Believing the Lie.
Carson, The Butler: I think the order in his life would draw the butler to tales of adventure, so he might well borrow a copy of H. Rider Haggard’s The Wanderer’s Necklace, published in 1914. And if the time-traveling bookmobile pays a visit to Downton Abbey, then he might be drawn to The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro, though I don’t think he would finish the book, such would be his discomfort.
John Bates, The Valet: I think he might not be able to resist The Valley of Fear by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. John Buchan’s The Thirty Nine Steps, which was first serialized in Blackwood’s magazine in 1915, would also appeal to him. Mrs. Hughes, the housekeeper, will also be in line to read Buchan’s book – the work of a fellow Scot would definitely be on her list!
Tom Branson, The Chauffeur: Two books published in the war years would have been high on his TBR list – The Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, both by fellow Irishman, James Joyce. Given his literary intentions, Branson might reach into the future for a copy of Stephen King’s On Writing.
Matthew Crawley, The Heir: Julian Grenfell’s poem, Into Battle was published in The Times in 1915 – I think Matthew might have cut it out and folded it into his officer’s Field Service Pocket Book*. I suspect his recreational reading might be a combination of the light and the more serious – perhaps Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka, and on the other hand, Something Fresh by P.G. Wodehouse – both published in 1915. Being a lawyer, he might grab John Grisham’s The Firm from the time-traveling bookmobile.
* The Field Service Pocket Book was issued to all officers and men in the Great War. I have an original copy from 1914.
Mrs. Hughes, The Housekeeper: I think she might like romances, but would also enjoy the stability of the classics. She is a compassionate person, so I would imagine Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South might appeal to her, along with Arnold Bennett’s Anna of the Five Towns and Clayhanger.
Sarah O’Brien, The Lady’s Maid: She’s so busy nosing into everyone’s business, she won’t have time to read a novel, but she might dip into Ten Minute Stories by Algernon Blackwood, published during the war years. Ten minutes is about all she would spare before lurking somewhere to get the dirt on another member of the household.
Beryl Patmore, The Cook: She probably only has time for a “penny-dreadful”* every now and again, but probably has a copy of Mrs. Beeton’s Cookery Book. I think she’d love Jamie Oliver’s latest book, Jamie’s Great Brittain (I do!), but I bet she’s be thinking she could teach him a thing or two.
*Note: A “penny dreadful” was the term used in Britain to describe cheap fiction, usually sensational – the moniker was first used in the 1800’s when such fiction was serialized in booklets costing a penny each.
There are more Downton Abbey characters to take to the bookstore than I have space for here – what do you think they’re reading?