Sunday, Sep 25, 2016
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Tales to help 'Downton' fans through another dry spell

As we prepare for another long Downton Abbey dry spell (the final Season 3 episode aired last month), some of us will be looking for something Downton-ish to read. I sampled four current novels, all of which name-checked Downton Abbey on their covers. Alas, no character came close to the Dowager Countess, and in general there wasn’t nearly enough below-stairs scheming, but each offered pleasures of its own.

The Passing Bells by Phillip Rock (reissue of a 1978 novel, William Morrow, $15.99 paperback).

Setting: World War I, in Surrey and overseas.

Downton link: The front cover reads “Before there was Downton Abbey, there was Abingdon Pryory.”

Wallow factor: High (it’s 516 pages, and the first of a trilogy).

Exquisite ancestral home: Abingdon Pryory, a magnificent brick-chimneyed pile in Surrey that’s an architectural mixture of Tudor, Queen Anne, Georgian, and Victorian styles.

Upstairs/downstairs romance? Yes, between Ivy the chambermaid and Martin the visiting American cousin.

Fun historic-celebrity cameo: The poet Rupert Brooke, “a fine fellow with the ability to talk for hours without boring anyone.”

Sample outfit: “A long evening dress of pale-green silk embroidered with seed pearls, the bodice cut with a discreet plunge.”

Overall effectiveness as a Downton substitute: If you liked the World War I action in Season 2, there’s much along those lines here; less attention is paid to the at-home drama.

Habits of the House by Fay Weldon (St. Martin’s Press, $25.99 hardcover).

Setting: 1899 London.

Downton link: A blurb on the front cover reads “An entertaining romp for Downton Abbey fans.”

Wallow factor: Moderate (306 pages), but this is the first of a planned trilogy.

Exquisite ancestral home: Dilberne Court, in the Hampshire hills, but this story takes place in the Earl of Dilberne’s elegant rented town house in London’s Belgrave Square.

Upstairs/downstairs romance? Not really, though the son of the household is considering marriage to an heiress who is, in a Lady Mary sort of way, “compromised.”

Fun historic-celebrity cameo: At a party, “H.D. Wells affected not to recognize Henry James, rather unkindly asking who the hippopotamus was.”

Sample outfit: A very up-to-date female cyclist pedals away in “a crimson high-necked and red-corded tailored jacket, with cross-braiding down the bodice and a vaguely military air, a pair of divided skirts gathered at the ankles, and high-laced button boots.”

Overall effectiveness as a Downton substitute: Enjoyably light, and filled with rich description and familiar plots (such as the Earl’s potential financial ruin); it made me sorry the next installment isn’t available yet.

Abdication by Juliet Nicholson (Simon & Schuster, $15 paperback).

Setting: 1936 England.

Downton link: On the back cover “As addictive as Downton Abbey ...”

Wallow factor: Moderate (342 pages).

Exquisite ancestral home: Cuckmere Park in Sussex, a manor house whose stone walls smell of ancient cigar smoke.

Upstairs/downstairs romance? Yes, between a female chauffeur and a middle-class friend of the family.

Fun historic-celebrity cameo: Virginia Woolf, whose cook is friends with the Cuckmere Park housekeeper, and who admits to a “terribly nosy habit of wanting to know every detail about everyone.”

Sample outfit: A floor-length silver sheath accessorized with “the very latest thing in chic:” a velvet evening bag with a working watch for a clasp.

Overall effectiveness as a Downton substitute: The period’s a little off, but the book — and the time and details it captures — is engrossing.

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