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Posts Tagged ‘Masterpiece Theatre’

ladyvioletI dined today with Lady Violet. Not really, but I did have Sunday dinner with my mother and several of her friends, all of whom now are of the age the Dowager Countess was back then, in 1925. All were looking forward, too, to the sixth and final season of Downton Abbey, which begins its American run on PBS’s Masterpiece Theatre tonight. Although they’ve already bid farewell to Downton Abbey in the UK, with the finale airing Christmas Day, none of the ladies I was with went looking for spoilers on Google beforehand. Not that they don’t know their way around an iPad or a laptop, thank you very much. But they are anticipating the pleasures of reacquainting themselves with the Crawley family, upstairs and downstairs, certain that writer Julian Fellowes can be counted on to deliver the requisite drama.

Indeed, Downton Abbey has been rife with love, loss, scandal and the challenges posed by a changing world, or as the New York Times listed in a quiz about the characters: Shattering Heartbreak, Money Trouble, Forbidden Desire, Child Tribulations, Devastating Betrayal, Physical Misery, Blackmail Travails. Most of the main characters have been beset by multiple woes.

lakehouseDownton Abbey is like a good novel, and not surprisingly, it has been good for publishing, not only with the popularity of official companion volumes, but with the renewed interest in family sagas set in World War I or post-war Britain. I’ve recommended many over the last five years, but the only novel I’ve read recently that sort of falls in that category is Kate Morton’s The Lake House (Atria, digital galley). In 1930s Cornwall, the wealthy Edevane family is visited by tragedy when their youngest child, 11-month-old Theo, vanishes from the nursery during a midsummer’s eve party. The case is never solved, and in 2003, disgraced young police detective Sadie Sparrow, stumbles on the abandoned manor house while visiting her grandfather in Cornwall. She’s intrigued by the case and also by the fact that famous mystery novelist Alice Edevane, a child when her brother disappeared, is still alive but has never returned to Cornwall. Morton shifts the story between past and present as Sadie investigates the cold case and as Alice recalls in vivid detail the events of that fateful summer. It’s a Downton-kind of saga, evoking a bygone time and many family secrets.

turnerhouseBut the Brits are not the only ones who write family sagas. If what interests you is how generations of a flawed family are torn and bound by secrets over time, then check out Angela Flournoy’s absorbing first novel, The Turner House (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, digital galley), which was a National Book Award finalist. The house on Yarrow Street on Detroit’s East Side is about as far away from Downton as you might imagine, but for 50 years it was the home of Francis and Viola Turner and their 13 children. In the 1940s, the neighborhood was a comfortable one for a working-class black family, but by 2008, the recession has wrecked the East Side. The house is nowhere near its mortgaged value, and the clan must make some decisions. Flournoy focuses on three of the Turner offspring — truck driver Cha-Cha, young police officer Troy, and baby sister and gambling addict Lelah — and also includes flashbacks tracing Francis and Viola’s migration from the South. Social history, family history, American history. Also, Shattering Heartbreak, Money Trouble, Child Tribulation, Devastating Betrayal, etc., etc

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cindersThe new season of the PBS powerhouse Downton Abbey arrives stateside Sunday after having already aired in the UK. If you are the kind of person who likes spoilers, you probably already know via Google what’s up with Lady Mary, sister Edith, ladies’ maid Anna and butler Carson, etc., etc. The rest of us have been making do with reruns and the Downton Abbey cottage industry of books inspired by the series.

Publishers continue to ride the crest of Downton’s popularity, with authorized spin-offs, as well as reprints of similar family sagas (Philip Rock’s Passing Bells trilogy) and newly minted volumes (Fay Weldon’s The New Countess pubbed last month).  Aimed at teens, Leila Rasheed’s At Somerton series, which started last year with Cinders & Sapphires (Disney-Hyperion, purchased e-book), continues this month with Diamonds & Deceit, as Lady Ada and her sister brave the London season on the eve of World War I.

franceBecause 1914 marks the 100th anniversary of the start of the Great War, we can expect more novels set in that era. I’m reading one of them right now — Somewhere in France by Jennifer Robson (HarperCollins, digital galley). When war breaks out, plucky Lady Elizabeth “Lilly” Neville-Ashford, striving for independence from aristocratic society, becomes an ambulance driver “somewhere in France.” She is reunited with her brother’s childhood friend, Robbie Fraser, a field surgeon whose working-class background disqualifies him as a suitor in her parents’ eyes, but the war breaks down some barriers while erecting others. Love and war, duty and honor. Remember in Upstairs, Downstairs when Georgina was nursing in France and found wounded James? Lilly reminds me a bit of Georgina, as well as nurse Bess Crawford in Charles Todd’s ongoing series (A Question of Honor). Her challenges as a female ambulance driver also are similar to those of the title heroine of Anita Shreve’s recent novel Stella Bain.

ashendonW. Somerset Maugham drew on his time as a British intelligence officer during WWI for his collection of short stories Ashenden. It’s not to be confused with Elizabeth Wilhide’s Ashenden (Simon & Schuster, paperback review copy via Shelf Awareness), which takes its name from an English country house, its checkered history chronicled in a series of linked short stories. The first, set in 2010, finds brother and sister Charles and Ros wondering what to do with the old house they have surprisingly inherited. The narrative then skips back to 1775 and the building of the Palladian mansion designed by a Yorkshire architect who gives heart and blood to the project. Years later he returns to Ashenden with his ailing niece, who carves her initials beneath the window sill of the still-unfinished octagonal room. In 1837, the lady of the house takes a lover with scandalous consequences for the family and its servants. The house itself, neglected for decades, is then rescued and restored by the rags-to-riches Henderson clan in 1844, and  it’s a Henderson son’s housemaid’s impulsive theft 40 years later that makes for another tale. Like Downton Abbey, Ashenden becomes a convalescent home for wounded soldiers during World War I. Later, it’s the site of a Jazz Age treasure hunt, then a wartime POW camp. Nature takes its toll until a young couple intervenes in the 1950s, and so on. The episodic structure gives the book a familiar Masterpiece Theatre feel.

tyringhamRosemary McLoughlin’s Tyringham Park (Atria, digital galley), which will be published next month, is much more melodramatic. It begins on a summer day in 1917  when “the pretty one” — toddler Victoria Blackshaw — disappears on the huge estate in Ireland. The handsome stable manager and the kindly housekeeper are the most concerned. “The plain one” — eight-year-old Charlotte — is mute in the aftermath of her sister’s disappearance, ignored by her pompous father in London, and victimized at home by both her selfish mother, Lady Edwina, and scheming Nurse Dixon. Young Charlotte has a tough time in the years ahead, but her own behavior doesn’t always win sympathy, except when contrasted to Lady Edwina, who is such a conniving witch that she deserves disaster. Meanwhile, Nurse Dixon reinvents herself as Elizabeth Dixon in faraway Australia, where she plots revenge against the Blackshaws and eagerly awaits the day she can return triumphantly to Tyringham.  It’s soap opera in a scenic setting. Did I mention that Downton Abbey has been renewed for a fifth season?!

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Friends of the blog know I am a “Downton Abbey” fan, addicted to the upstairs-downstairs lives being chronicled on PBS’s Masterpiece Theatre. Last night’s episode was especially entrancing with the return of the viper Vera and the wounding of Matthew and William in France. And didn’t you love dowager Lady Violet doing battle with the vicar?

I’ve seen a number of proposed “Downton Abbey” reading lists for those wanting to know more of the Edwardians and World War I. Mostly they round up the usual suspects in literary fiction, memoir and poetry, which is well and good to a point. Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory is one of my favorite books, and yes, you really should read Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, Robert Lowell’s Goodbye To All That, Vera Brittain’s elegiac Testament of Youth. Be aware, though, they are more downers than “Downton.”

They are not the books I went in search of to satisfy my craving for sudsy family sagas. I am still getting to know the Crawleys. The Swanns, the Grevilles, the Straffords, the Spragues and the Days are all old friends, and thanks to R.E. Delderfield, Philip Rock, Ursula Zilinksy and Elswyth Thane, I know their family trees better than my own. (They also are handily printed at the novels’ beginnings).

Right now, I’m basking in Zilinsky’s The Long Afternoon, delighting again in the details of life at Altondale Park a century ago: “Draperies and portieres and clutter made unending work, especially when combined with sooty coal fires, but housemaids cost less to keep than a hunting dog, and the rumblings of William Morris, who preached natural wood, light-colored walls, and simplicity, would not reach Yorkshire for some years to come, and when they did, would be ignored.”

After I finish with the changing fortunes of aristocratic Toby, his German cousin Felix, and their friend David, the vicar’s son, I plan to move on to Rock’s The Passing Bells and reacquainting myself with the Grevilles, American cousin Martin and housemaid Ivy Thaxton. Since it’s the first book in a trilogy, I’ll be hard pressed to stop with one book.

And then there are Delderfield’s doorstops in his God is an Englishman trilogy. The Edwardian/ World War I story of Adam Swann’s heirs is the third, Theirs Was the Kingdom. And there are seven volumes in Thane’s Williamsburg series, although The Light Heart, following Phoebe Sprague and Oliver Campion from 1902 to 1917, may well be my favorite.

Unfortunately, many of these books are out-of-print, but you can find copies in libraries and used bookstores. Lucky me has them all, as well as Alison McLeay’s The Summer House, Rumer Godden’s China Court, and Kate Morton’s more recent The House at Riverton.

The many new books I have to read are just going to have to wait. Look for me in an English country house. I hope you’ll stay for tea.

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