Ahh, the joys of Downton Abbey—the meaningful glances, the sharp-tongued dowagers, the rigid class structure, the fancy dinner dresses! Not only do I love this Masterpiece Theatre series for its excellent acting, fantastic sets and costumes, and nuanced historical details, but I also enjoy how much it reminds me of some of my favorite novels. Indeed, I have long nurtured a passion for reading novels that feature butlers with stiff upper lips, society scandals, and marriages of convenience that occasionally manage to blossom into true love.
The wildly popular show’s fourth season will be over far too soon—leaving us bereft and Grantham-less yet again. Fortunately we’ve gathered up a few choice books to help you ease the pain of your impending Downton Abbey withdrawal.
Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey: The Lost Legacy of Highclere Castle, by Fiona, Countess of Carnarvon
Those who marvel at the breathtaking and iconic estate depicted in Downton Abbey will love this nonfiction account of the life and times of Lady Almina, one of the most famous residents of Highclere Castle, the real-life setting of Downton Abbey and the inspiration for the series. The author uses family letters, diaries, and photographs to illuminate this captivating true story—and the parallels between the fascinating life of Lady Almina and that of Downton’s Cora Crawley will delight and beguile fans of the show.
The House of Mirth, by Edith Wharton
Wharton’s dazzling, devastating novel tells the story of the beautiful and vivacious Lily Bart, who is the toast of 1890s New York society. A woman of little means, Bart enjoys a risky, pleasure-seeking existence as she struggles to keep up with her more moneyed friends. Wharton’s fourth novel is filled with sharp observations on the undercurrents of greed, hypocrisy, and judgment inherent in the rigid class structures of turn-of-the-century New York society.
Pride and Prejudice, Or Really Anything by Jane Austen
Pride and Prejudice is my personal favorite, but you can take your pick of any of Austen’s novels—Emma, Sense and Sensibility, Mansfield Park—each is a veritable feast of clever dialogue, romantic misunderstandings, biting social commentary, moody heroes, and minute descriptions of the day to day activities and ironclad social protocols of Regency-era England.
The Maisie Dobbs Series, by Jacqueline Winspear
Set in 1920s London, the first in this series of detective novels follows the career of precocious young Englishwoman Maisie Dobbs—who begins life as a junior housemaid for an aristocratic family, then works as a nurse on the front lines in France during World War I, and finally opens her own practice as a private investigator. There are ten books in this clever, well-written series—enough to keep fans busy for quite some time.
Gone With the Wind, by Margaret Mitchell
A thrilling read for the history buff who relishes a story with strong romantic elements and an unforgettable cast of characters, Mitchell’s sweeping saga chronicles the rapid downfall and hardships of a wealthy Atlanta family during the American Civil War and Reconstruction period. Although it takes place on the other side of the pond, this epic novel is chock full of the kinds of thwarted romance, war-time upheaval, and rich historical detail that make Downton Abbey such a gripping and poignant drama.
Below Stairs, by Margaret Powell
This thoughtful, moving memoir about Powell’s time in service, where she began as a kitchen maid and moved up to work as a cook in several different houses in England, offers a captivating and personal glimpse into the world of the servants of Downton. This memoir has been credited by Downton Abbey’s creator Julian Fellowes as an inspiration for the show.
Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte
The haunting story of the forbidden love between an impoverished governess and her tempestuous, high-society employer, who—bonus!—has a dark secret, Jane Eyre has all the elements of upstairs-downstairs class conflict that keep Downton Abbey fraught with dramatic tension, but with an added dark, gothic flair.
And Then There Were None, by Agatha Christie
This cozy yet chilling whodunit brings a cast of eccentric characters from all walks of British life—the quiet, dignified butler, the governess with a sinister secret, the corrupt police inspector—together to an isolated mansion where they have been invited for a mysterious purpose by a shadowy stranger: And that’s when the fun begins. And by “fun” I of course mean, “they start getting killed off, one by one, in terrifying ways.” Widely recognized as one of Christie’s best, this classic page-turner mystery with a delightful British flair is filled with intrigue, nonstop suspense, and the kinds of colorful personalities Downton fans will love.
The Remains of the Day, by Kazuo Ishiguro
This Booker Prize–winning novel tells the heartbreaking story of a devoted English butler who takes a road trip to reflect upon his life, which mainly revolved around a thirty-year career of service to his lordship. This story is a must-read for fans of the restrained, excruciatingly proper Downton Abbey butler Mr. Carson, as it explores the question of whether a faithful servant who spends a lifetime putting his duties first can do so while remaining true to his own values, and enjoying a full and rich life of his own.
What are your favorite Downton-inspired reads?