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.
Guidelines: Please keep your comments smart and civil. Don't attack other readers personally, and keep your language decent. Comments that violate these standards, or our privacy statement or visitor's agreement, are subject to being removed and commenters are subject to being banned. To post comments, you must be a registered user on toledoblade.com. To find out more, please visit the FAQ.