Many teachers suffer from the “Sunday night blues,” but not me. I look forward to this night of the week more than any other. That’s when Masterpiece Theatre (now called Masterpiece Classic and Masterpiece Mystery!) comes on and on Sunday evenings from 9:00 to 11:00 pm, I will not answer the telephone, not even for my own children, but they know better than to call me during this time.
For the past several weeks, I have been watching the second series of Downton Abbey and I have not been disappointed in the least. Downton Abbey is more than just another British period piece on public television. According to a recent New York Times article, “If You’re Mad for ‘Downton Abbey,’ Publishers Have Reading List,” by Julie Bosman, it has become “a marketing tool for booksellers hoping to tap into the passion of the show’s audience.” Downton Abbey can be linked to many subjects including life in Edwardian England and World War I, which is the backdrop of the second series. I happen to be an aficionado of books during this time period and I would like to offer some suggestions for teachers and students, especially for those who might be touring England.
If you would like to read about the lifestyles of the rich and famous, you should read Rose: My Life in Service to Lady Astor by Rosina Harrison, which gets a nod in the NYT article. Harrison served as Lady Astor’s personal maid from 1929 to 1964. Virginia-born Lady Astor, the first female Member of Parliament, found herself in a heated debate with Winston Churchill when they were both guests at Blenheim Palace. At one point in the evening, Lady Astor said, “Winston, if I were your wife, I’d put poison in your coffee.” Churchill retorted, “Nancy, if I were your husband, I’d drink it.” Harrison was frank with her employer, but never insulting like Churchill, and she was able to travel around the world with her employer during her time in service.
Manor House: Life in an Edwardian Country House by Juliet Gardiner is the companion book for the public television series that recreated life in 1905 in pre-WWI England. For three months, nineteen 21st century volunteers made up the “upstairs” family of five and the “downstairs” staff of fourteen who played their carefully subscribed roles in Manderston, a manor house on the Scottish borders. The series was great reality television for history buffs and the book provides an excellent historic backdrop of the Edwardian period and a look at all of the house activities from the points of view of the family and the servants. Not surprisingly, the volunteers who played the family members enjoyed their time living in Manderston and dreaded leaving their privileged Edwardian lifestyle and the “servants” who had to do all of the physically demanding work and live under a rigid code of etiquette could not wait to return to their former lives.
Two authors who have created interesting and intriguing historical mysteries series are Charles Todd and Jacqueline Windspear. The NYT article also mentions A Bitter Truth by Charles Todd, the acclaimed mother-and-son writing team that created the heroine, Bess Crawford, a battlefield nurse during World War I who solves murder mysteries. The Bitter Truth is the latest book in a series that includes A Duty to the Dead and An Impartial Witness. Another compelling character is Maisie Dobbs, created by Jacqueline Winspear. Book critic Maureen Corrigan reviewed Winspear’s debut novel, Maisie Dobbs, on NPR’s Fresh Air and described it as “ part Testament of Youth, part Dorothy Sayers, and part Upstairs, Downstairs.” Maisie Dobbs begins her working career as a 14-year-old housemaid and through the benevolence of her employer and her natural intelligence attends Cambridge University. She works as a nurse on the Western Front during WWI and returns home after the war to work as a private investigator. There are a total of eight books in this series. I hope Masterpiece Theatre adapts these books for television. I might have to increase my donations to public television if that happens.
One of my favorite WWI autobiographies and memoirs is Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain which details her life from 1900 to 1925. I read her book after watching the Masterpiece Theatre dramatization in 1980 that focused on her work as a nurse in London and Malta and on the Western Front in France during WWI. Like so many women of her generation, she suffered the losses of her brother, her fiancé, and her two close friends as a result of the war. Despite her tragedies, the end of WWI would provide her with many opportunities to go on with her new life.
Thanks to the recommendation in Julie Bosman’s NYT article, I just ordered a copy of Lady Almina and The Real Downton Abbey: The Lost Legacy of Highclere Castle by the 8th, Countess of Carnarvon and great-granddaughter-in-law of Lady Almina, who is the real-life counterpart of Lady Cora Cawley, the “lady of the house” in Downton Abbey. Just as Lady Cora does in the television series, Lady Almina opened the doors of Highclere Castle to wounded men during WWI. This book matches up with the story line in Downton Abbey’s second series.
Students might be interested in learning that there is a King Tut connection to Highclere Castle. Lady Almina’s husnand, George, the 5th Earl of Carnarvon, was the patron of archaeologist Howard Carter who discovered the tomb of Tutankhamen.
Touring great manor houses or stately homes is often a highlight on any tour itinerary in England. I have visited many of them including Blenheim Palace, Chatsworth House, and Woburn Abbey. However, I have never been to Highclere Castle and I look forward to visiting it in the future, along with all of the other rabid fans of Downton Abbey. You can even plan a wedding at Highclere Castle! I wonder if my daughter might be open to this idea when the time comes—probably not, but one can always hope.
Readers, are you a fan of Downton Abbey? What stately homes have you visited? What are your reading suggestions for the Edwardian and World War I time periods?