Downton Abbey has come to an end both in the UK and the US but if you are interested in the era the programme is set (as we are) then these books hopefully will give you a greater insight into this period and what life was like in Britain in the late 19th to the early 20th century. Ignore all other lists; this is the one you need.
PART 1: NON-FICTION
Consuelo Vanderbilt Balsan – The Glitter and the Gold
Published in 1953 when Consuelo was already in her seventies this autobiography dwells on her childhood, her unhappy marriage to and divorce from the 9th Duke of Marlborough to her work with the poor and support for women’s suffrage and finally her second marriage to French aviator Jacques Balsan. Of particular interest here is Consuelo’s account of life as a duchess and chatelaine of Blenheim Palace which depicts a way of life in its Indian summer before its eventual demise during the First World War.
Anne de Courcy – Society’s Queen: The Life of Edith Marchioness of Londonderry, The Viceroy’s Daughters, 1939: The Last Season, Margot at War: Love and Betrayal at Downing Street 1912-1916
This quartet of books from Anne de Courcy explores the lives of Edith Londonderry, the daughters of Lord Curzon and Margot Asquith where she weaves their lives amidst the social and political realities of the times they live in where their privileged lives were simply a façade for the growing impotence of the class they belong to and which all would come to an end with Armageddon in 1939.
Catherine Bailey – Black Diamonds: The Rise and Fall of an English Dynasty, The Secret Rooms
Catherine Bailey’s well researched books on the Fitzwilliam family and the 9th Duke of Rutland has all the ingredients that make Downton Abbey pale in comparison. From missing documents to forbidden love to betrayal to subterfuge to mysterious births and deaths; the stories of the Fitzwilliams and the 9th Duke do lend credence to the old adage that truth is stranger than fiction
Mary Lovell – The Mitford Girls
The death of Deborah Dowager Duchess of Devonshire in 2014 marked the end of an era and Mary Lovell’s biography of the famous and infamous six Mitford sisters provides a snapshot of what it was like for an aristocratic family to be a casualty of the prolonged agricultural slump that has decimated the fortunes of many in the aristocracy. The sisters’ close relationship with one another make good reading – how it was tested time and again and in some cases unable to withstand the changing political and economic conditions that engulfed their class.
Loelia Duchess of Westminster – Grace and Favour
Mabell Countess of Airlie – Thatched with Gold: The Memoirs of Mabell Countess of Airlie
Lady Cynthia Asquith – Remember and Be Glad, Haply I May Remember
What was it like to be an upper class woman where you had to be strictly chaperoned until you were married? Where your education was haphazard and anything that was deemed to be unladylike was actively discouraged? Where discussion of awkward and difficult subjects was avoided? Let Loelia Westminster, Mabell Airlie and Cynthia Asquith be your guides through a vanished world where strict morality, a sense of propriety prevailed and the shenanigans of a Lady Mary, Lady Edith or Lady Rose would have been commented upon and not tolerated.
Mollie Moran – Aprons and Silver Spoons
Flo Wadlow – Over a Hot Stove
Rosina Harrison – The Lady’s Maid
Readers might wonder why we do not have Margaret Powell’s Below Stairs but we believe that her account is only one side of the story and it’s easy to forget that she did not work for the aristocracy or even the untitled gentry. For those of you who are wondering how a real life Mrs Patmore or Miss O’Brien might have coped and what life could have been like in an aristocratic household then the reminiscences of Mollie Moran, Flo Wadlow and Rosina Harrison will present another side of the story overlooked by Margaret Powell.
Frances Osborne – The Bolter
This could be subtitled The Marriages of Idina Sackville, a woman who could “whistle a chap off a branch” and frequently did. From scandalising Edwardian London to organising wife swapping parties in Kenya, this is a highly entertaining account of an earl’s daughter who pushed the boundaries of behaviour to extremes. Fascinating and repelling at the same time.
Vera Brittain – Testament of Youth
One of the best memoirs of World War One – poignant, at times agonising and at all times deeply personal, although for me it sags after the end of the war when Brittain talks at great lengths about her political and social justice ambitions and interests. One comment that was made when this came out is that it’s written as if Brittain was the only woman to lose a fiancé during the war, and she’s certainly self-absorbed throughout, but a worthwhile read as a contemporary account of Britain from peace to war and back again.
Phyllida Barstow – The English Country House Party
A description of the golden age of the English country house party from the death of Prince Albert in 1861 to the outbreak of war in 1914. An intimate and entertaining account of a vanished world and a vanished class that uses diaries, fiction and personal memoirs to convey a world that was not just about enjoyment but served serious social and political purposes.
Gail McColl and Carol Wallace – To Marry an English Lord
One of the inspirations for Downton Abbey was the career of the Buccaneers – young American heiresses who came to Britain with the intention of marrying into the peerage. 1895 was the peak year for this social phenomenon, and eventually more than 100 heiresses exchanged their fortunes for British titles. Why they came, what they found, how they were supposed to behave, what it was like to be a peeress and what happened when – as often was the case – these marriages foundered are all entertainingly catalogued, with plenty of contemporary drawings and photographs.
Jerry White – Zeppelin Nights: London in the First World War
London in 1914 was the chief city of the British Empire and with the declaration of war became, in the words of one review, one of the greatest killing machines in human history…the war changes London for ever…yet despite daily casualty lists, food shortages and enemy bombings, Londoners are determined to get on with their lives… patriots and pacifists, clergymen and thieves, bluestockings and prostitutes…a struggling yet flourishing city. It’s four years in the city’s long history told by focusing on the daily lives of Londoners, whether they were rich or poor, high or low.
Juliet Nicholson – The Great Silence: 1918-1920, Life in the Shadow of the Great War
A book about the two years from the end of the Great War to the burial of the Unknown Soldier in 1920, and a solid and often moving account of the devastation effects of war and grief on the British of all classes and as the title implies, stoically endured in a silence that had come to an awareness that after four years of war reality was too much for words to describe. Like water moving under ice, Nicholson shows that despite everything people survived and coped and tentatively at last began to hope for happiness again.
Virginia Nicholson – Singled Out
This is an exploration of the lives of a generation of women who were deprived of marriage and motherhood by the carnage of war and the lives they made for themselves as they challenged convention, coped with adversity and in the process proved to themselves and others that men, marriage and babies were not the only future for women.
Elisabeth Kehoe – Fortune’s Daughters: The Extravagant Lives of the Jerome Sisters
The most famous of the Buccaneers could arguably be Jennie Jerome but her two sisters Leonie and Clara also married into the British aristocracy and gentry. Elisabeth Kehoe’s fascinating biography chronicles the social ambitions of their mother and how through her sheer force of will and the sisters’ beauty and charm they married into the aristocracy in the process establishing themselves into society and becoming confidantes to politicians, royals and other prominent people of their day.
Amanda Mackenzie Stuart – Consuelo and Alva Vanderbilt: The Story of a Mother and Daughter in the Gilded Age
A dual biography of Consuelo Vanderbilt and her mother Alva, Stuart charts the events that shaped Alva’s social climbing ambitions and how Consuelo was instrumental to that plan. What is fascinating is how both women turned to good causes as society lost it allure and their marriages floundered under stress and strain – with their work for the poor, sick and women’s rights. And it is through public service and their respective second marriages that both mother and daughter find fulfilment and happiness.
Pamela Horn – Country House Society, Life in a Victorian Household, The Rise and Fall of the Victorian Servant, Life in the Victorian Country House, Ladies of the Manor, Life Below Stairs: the real lives of servants the Edwardian era to 1939, Women in the 1920s, High Society: The English Social Elite 1880-1914
Pamela Horn was a lecturer on social history at Oxford Polytechnic (now Oxford Brookes University) and is an acknowledged expert on British society during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Her books all draw from various primary sources such as letters, diary entries, newspaper and magazine articles and census reports to flesh out how men and women both high and low really lived during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Robert Wainwright – Sheila: The Australian Ingénue who Bewitched British Society
Once the novelty of marrying American heiresses wore off, British aristocrats began to look more into the daughters of home grown industrialists and those from the Dominions (Canada, Australia, New Zealand) for potential brides seeing them as preferable to Americans. Among these women from the Dominions who took British society by storm was Sheila Chisholm an Australian who married the heir to the earldom of Rosslyn and attracted a string of admirers among them the future George VI who fell passionately in love with her. Wainwright deftly places Sheila at the heart of a society outwardly moving on from the First World War but still reeling from its effects under the surface only to meet its demise during the Second World War.
Martin Pugh – We Danced All Night: A Social History of Britain Between the Wars
Martin Pugh suggests in the title that it wasn’t all doom and gloom for Britain during the years following the First World War. While the interwar years was a period of strikes, economic decline and growing impotence on the global stage it was also an era of the rise of consumer society, greater choice, improvements in science and technology and greater democratisation of society.
The Duchess of Devonshire – Chatsworth: The House
Like her sisters Nancy, Diana and Jessica; Deborah also developed a career in writing on the side and this excellent coffee table book charts the history of Chatsworth House and the previous dukes and duchesses who have made it their home. It also serves as a guided tour of one of Britain’s leading visitor attractions and bringing to life how the house has adapted to the changing times and changing needs of those who live and work under its roof.
Lucy Lethbridge – Servants: A Downstairs View of 20th century Britain
Jeremy Musson – Up and Down Stairs
Tracing the rise, apogee and eventual decline of domestic service, both Lethbridge and Musson makes an excellent stab at portraying domestic service in all its diversity and complexity and that it wasn’t all black and white when it came to servants and employers but it was in varying shades of grey.
Mark Girouard – Life in the English Country House
An architectural historian, Giorouard traces the development of the country house over the last 500 years in respond to changing times, fashions, needs and attitudes.
Anita Leslie – Edwardians in Love
Contrary to what has been claimed by the Downton PR machine, the people of the past are not empathically like us. As LP Hartley wrote in The Go-Between, “the past is a different country, they do things differently there.” Leslie, a cousin of Winston Churchill describes in great detail the loves and passions of the Edwardian upper classes, the rules they had to strictly adhere to and their views on love, relationships, marriage and adultery which by the standards of today can be seen as hypocritical and even unpalatable.
Tessa Boase – The Housekeeper’s Tale
Charting the history of the housekeeper from the 19th century to the present by using case studies, Tessa Boase depicts that there is more to the housekeeper than Mrs Hughes. While the position comes with power and responsibility, it is also fraught with hidden danger where one false move and the housekeeper finds herself with no job, no place to stay and no reference. Oftentimes a footnote in history, Boase places the housekeeper central stage and traces the changes in domestic service through their eyes.
Roy Hattersley – The Edwardians
Andrew Marr – The Making of Modern Britain
The Edwardian era is oftentimes seen as a period of the Belle Epoque of balls, dances and dinners where men in white tie and tails mingled with women in sumptuous evening gowns and jewels. But underneath the glitter and glamour was a society on a cusp of change where royalty and aristocracy were being supplanted by the middle class while march of science and technology was rendering the old ways of doing things obsolete and a whole group of people both men and women were no longer content to be simply seen as subjects but were flexing their muscles and demanding to be heard and to be taken seriously by the powers that be. Both are a must read as an overview of British history from 1901 to 1939.
Jeremy Paxman – Great Britain’s Great War
Kate Adie – Fighting the Home Front
Terry Charman – The First World War on the Home Front
One of the wasted potentials of Downton Abbey was to explore the First World War in any meaningful way and as befitting the first mechanised and total war in history how it even pervaded the home front. Paxman, Adie and Charman explore the effects of the war in Britain, how everyone rich and poor, high and low were affected and a hundred years later still resonate in the British psyche.
For part 2 – see here