Friday, February 24, 2012

Downton Fever!

For the past several months, my weekends (for the Dowager Countess’ information: n. the end of a week, especially the period of time between Friday evening and Monday morning) have been pleasantly rounded by episodes of the second season of Downton Abbey on PBS’ long-running Masterpiece Theater.  Well, it is more accurate to say that I have eagerly anticipated Sunday night so that I can completely stop whatever I am doing (cooking dinner, working on an assignment for class, having a conversation) and be transported into early 20th century Britain for a few hours.

In case your lodgings exist under a rock, Downton Abbey is a British television series about the fictional aristocratic Crawley family and the family’s servants at their country estate.  The critically acclaimed period drama has amassed a legion of American fans since its first airing on Masterpiece Theatre last year because of the sumptious production design, historical setting, and dramatic storylines invovling both the artistocratic family and the family's servants. Watching one good period drama has made me hungry for more, and now that the wait has begun for season three, I have been on the lookout for Downton Abbey watch-a-likes. Over the past week I have viewed The Young Victoria (screenplay written by Downton creator Julian Fellowes) depicting the budding relationship between Queen Victoria and Prince Albert as well as The Duchess starring Kiera Knightley, based on Amanda Foreman’s biography of the fashionable and politcally-savvy Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire. Thankfully, I found the website Enchanted Serenity of Period Films, which has indexed hundreds of periods films, including a number set in the Edwardian era, the era in which Downton begins.

The following are some Downton watch-a-likes films and miniseries to help keep you occupied before Season 3 begins: 

A Very Long Engagement starring Audrey Tautou, is a love story based on the book by Sebastien Japrisot and directed by the visionary Jean Pierre Jeunet. In the first rain-drenched scenes, we meet five condemned French soldiers as they are being led to No Man’s Land, the above ground area between the French and German trenches on the frontlines of the Battle of the Somme. The youngest of these five soldiers is Manech, who says he can feel the heartbeat of his fiance Mathilde in his self-muitlated hand.  In 1920, armed only with the clues she can glean from the possessions left by the the condemned soldiers and stubbornly convinced that Manech survived No Man's Land, Mathilde wages her own war to find out what happened to her fiance after going over the top.

Gosford Park is a winning collaboration between revered director Robert Altman and Downton creator and writer Fellowes evoking Agatha Christie. Sir William McCordle and his wife Lady McCordle host a shooting weekend at their country estate, bringing together their wealthy guests and the guests' servants, played by an excellent ensemble cast (including Maggie Smith as....a plucky Dowager Countess). When a murder occurs during the weekend, all are suspect and well-hidden secrets come to light in this gripping upstairs-downstairs mystery.
More films and miniseries to check out include:

Brideshead Revisited, both a 1981 miniseries starring Jeremy Irons and a 2008 film based on the book Evelyn Waugh called his "magnum opus."

The Forsyte Saga by John Galsworthy was most recently adapted for television in a 2002 miniseries starring the dashing ginger-haired Damian Lewis.

and Upstairs, Downstairs, both the original 1970s television show and the 2010 remake currently on-air in Britain.

Unlike many series airing on Masterpiece Theater, Downton was not based on a classic novel. However, there are plenty of read-a-likes to check out that evoke the same time period and topics covered on the show:

Birds of a Feather by Jacqueline Winspear finds housemaid turned detective Maisie Dobbs on the trail of a thirty-something-year-old runaway daughter of a worried businessman. The young lady's disappearance is connected to the death of another young woman. Does a single white feather provide a clue to the killer? Nearly fifteen years after the Great War, Maisie Dobbs finds that some wounds have not healed, to a murderous degree.  

American Heiress features another wealthy American woman named Cora that found a place for herself in the British aristocracy in this debut novel by Daisy Goodwin. Cora Cash marries the charming Duke of Wareham and discovers the high price to pay for her dreams of nobility.

In Inheritance by Robert Sackville West, the vast country house of Knole, formally the seat of the Earl of Dorset, is the main character. Since the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, the massive estate was home to generations of the Sackville family and proved to be a towering presence in the family's story.

For more great reads about British aristocracy, English country estates, World War I and more, check out:

Aristocrats by Stella Tillyard

The House of Tyneford by Natasha Solomons

The Beauty and the Sorrow by Peter Englund

The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate by Nancy Mitford

Below Stairs by Margaret Powell

Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen

The Newcomes by William Makepeace Thackeray

The Children’s Book by A.S. Byatt

and don’t forget the bastion of British historical fiction Georgette Heyer!  
So stop by the 2nd floor reference desk if you want to talk about Cousin Matthew, Mr. Bates and the rest of the crew AND to pick up a Downton Abbey read-a-like and watch-a-like flyer that Holley and I put together just for YOU!!


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