In the Meantime: Downton Abbey

We here at Geekade strive to provide our readers with the best in geek services. In our new series, In the Meantime, we recommend media and pop culture to enjoy when the TV/movie/book/game series you love ends or goes on hiatus. This week, when we’d normally be tuning into PBS for the latest episode of Downton Abbey, we see what else there is to read and watch in the long wait between seasons. (Seriously, BBC and PBS? Series 6 premieres in JANUARY?!?!)

Secrets of Highclere Castle (streaming on Netflix)

This PBS documentary is an in-depth look at the real-life home of the fictional Crawleys. It tells about its current residents, the eighth Earl of Carnarvon and his wife, his ancestors who inspired some of our favorite Downton characters, and compares the running of the house in the present to the ways it was done in the past. It’s a bit dry, but there are a lot of fun treats. You get to see a lot more of the grounds of the estate than you do on the show as well as tour rooms and learn other secrets that aren’t featured on the show. And Carson’s real-life counterpart does not disappoint, despite being called Colin, rather than Mr. Edwards.

The Girls at the Kingfisher Club by Genevieve Valentine

Genevieve Valentine’s The Girls at the Kingfisher Club is a reimagining of the German fairy tale, “The 12 Dancing Princesses” (“The Worn-Out Dancing Shoes” or “The Shoes that were Danced to Pieces”), but instead of a castle where the princesses dance the night away, the 12 Hamilton sisters foxtrot their way through the speakeasies of Prohibition-era New York. The social dynamics and expectations of the women of the period are illustrated through the parallel of the speakeasies with the home; namely, only promiscuous women and degenerates frequent the speakeasies whereas the domestic life offers virtuous women a comfortable and predictable safe-haven.

The Hamilton sisters, led by the eldest, Jo (nicknamed “The General” by her sisters for her strict rule as she organizes the departure and return of 11 women from the house to the speakeasies and back, undetected) diverges from the twelve princesses as their dancing is their means of survival in an oppressed era, whereas the princesses of Grimm’s, et al., are depicted as wicked and cunning, drugging hopeful suitors so as not to be found out by their suspicious father. But in the end, the intended fate of all 24, princesses and flappers alike, is ultimately to be wed, their shoes retired in light of their fulfillment of their duties as women.
Valentine paints a remarkable portrait of the era, breathing life into the old tale, wholly making it her own. Her Hamilton sisters experience the likes of such nights of dancing that even Lady Rose would find enviable.

Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey by the Countess of Carnarvon

This biography tells the story of the inspiration for the character of Lady Cora. It gives a good look at elements of Almina’s life that were used by the show, including how the teen bride’s rich American dowry saved the estate when she married Lord Carnarvon, and how she turned Highclere into a WWI hospital for wounded officers. Watchers of the PBS documentary will be able to see Lady Carnarvon’s admiration for Almina and it shines through in her writing.

The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin tells the story of the Chase sisters, Iris and Laura. The novel is steeped in history following the track of Downton Abbey, from the traditions of the Victorians to the Edwardian era to the aftermath of World War One and the Depression. Iris narrates the tale, explicating the story of her family going into the events that lead to her sister’s death, the fact of which is revealed to the reader in the very first sentence. While the novel employs several stories within a story and a novel within a novel, Iris is not a reliable narrator, admitting to leaving crucial details out of her tale, explaining, “the only way you can write the truth is to assume that what you set down will never be read. Not by any other person, and not even by yourself at some later date. Otherwise you begin excusing yourself.” Lucky for us, Atwood writes Iris knowingly writing for an audience.

The Blind Assassin will sate the Downton viewer’s love of the Crawley families’ penchant for bad timing and poor choices that ultimately culminate in disaster. The melancholy throughout the novel is slow and palpable, but the dry and judgemental musings of the narrator are reminiscent of Lady Mary or the Dowager Countess of Grantham, adding a guilty humor and enjoyment to an otherwise tragic story.

I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith

Set in 1930s English countryside, this novel tells the tale of the eccentric family of a once-great, now-blocked writer as they try to cling to the norms of society while deep in poverty. The elder sister schemes to marry the son of their wealthy new landlord to save the family. While the plot may be reminiscent of Jane Austen, its setting in time brings the Downton world closer to mind. The pressure on the older sister to marry well parallels Lady Mary’s troubles in early seasons, while the younger daughter who hopes to become a writer like her father is a less dour version of Lady Edith. For cinephiles and non-readers, a 2003 movie exists, featuring Bill Nighy and Rose Byrne.

The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro (novel and film)

The Remains of the Day is Ishiguro’s heartbreaking portrait of late 1930’s Britain and of the ideal British butler, Mr. Stevens, and of his mounting doubts as to his life’s work, personal values, and moral code. For Stevens, his life’s duty and purpose is in serving a great gentleman, but it becomes apparent early on that Stevens, nearing the end of his career, doubts both the greatness of his Lord Darlington and, more importantly, his own faith in the man for whom he has dedicated the majority his life.
While parallels have mistakenly been drawn between Mr. Stevens and Mr. Carson, and Miss Kenton with Mrs. Hughes, these characters are worlds apart in both their treatment of, and openness with, one another. While the Downton parallels are not as precise here as in other recommendations, this should not keep Downton fans from both the novel and the 1993 Oscar-nominated film, starring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson. The film lifts entire passages, dialogues, and actions from Ishiguro’s novel, and for this, as well as brilliant performances from both Hopkins and Thompson, is able to stand with the novel as a masterpiece for both Ishiguro and the film’s director, James Ivory.

Atonement by Ian McEwan

This grand romantic tragedy spans decades, but begins in a very familiar place. In a British manor house in pre-WWII England, our teenaged narrator, Briony, betrays her older sister with a lie born of jealousy. Cecilia and Robbie, teenage lovers who break class boundaries to be together, are swept apart as a result, and their love endures many trials. Chock full of secrets, stoicism, and self-sacrifice, this novel will come as a warm comfort to Downton fans who enjoy the relationships between the Crawley sisters and the torrid love affair between Sybil and Tom. A movie version exists of this as well, but as with most things, the book is better.

The Tudors

Showtime’s The Tudors is for the Downton viewer who craves a more stark distinction between the classes, murder intrigue, and the loosening of one’s corset strings (or an otherwise complete removal of said corset). Historical liberties are taken, as television is wont to do, but The Tudors holds its own in regard to its portrayal of 16th century England and the reign of King Henry VIII. The social rules and obligations are obviously significantly more strict, but the characters are allowed to indulge in more hedonistic pleasures than the post-Edwardian Crawleys. The beautiful Natalie Dormer’s intelligent and cunning Anne Boleyn is reminiscent of the haughtiness and schemes of Lady Mary, and the series is riddled with “Poor Ediths” that make Edith’s struggles look frivolous in comparison. If you’ve found the inhabitants of Downton too formal, too repressed, this brutal and erotically charged historical drama will satisfy your needs.

Gosford Park (for rent through YouTube)

Let me be clear. I cannot recommend this movie as a good movie. It is boring, slow as hell, and basically nothing happens. I didn’t like it the first time around and I did not change my mind while rewatching it for the purposes of this piece. However, you can’t recommend similar works without mentioning this movie. Several characters gather for a weekend shooting party at the home of a wealthy patriarch that may as well be down the road from Downton. You get the same dinner table sniping and repartee that you would at a Downton feast and more than any other story in this piece, you get a slice of life from the servants’ perspective. Dame Maggie Smith appears in both, though the Countess of Grantham is a far superior character, and there are a few other supporting players that turn up in both as well. Though the acting is good, the story is not compelling and the sound mixing is so terrible, it’s almost impossible to hear what’s going on. For my money, I’d rather go back and rewatch the whole series, but if you’re desperate, it’s there. 

Falling Angels by Tracy Chevalier

Just as Downton illustrates the societal transitions and evolutions of a post-World War I era, so, too, does Tracy Chevalier’s Falling Angels mark the dynamic transition into post-Victorian London. Chevalier’s character Kitty Coleman embodies this transition and the change of social and sexual mores, responding to the death of Queen Victoria with private rejoicing, welcoming a new century with open arms in the hope that “England would miraculously slough off her shabby black coat to reveal something glittering and new”. Kitty finds her niche in the women’s suffrage movement, her revolutionary and idealistic tendencies akin to those of the late Sybil Crawley. As in Downton, Chevalier endows men and women of all class distinctions with their own voice, explicating the gender and class issues of the time period.

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