It’s finally happening. Downton Abbey is airing its last season here in the U.S. In just a few short weeks, we will bid goodbye to a show that has united people around the globe in a shared love for melodramatic courtship, gossip and upstaging, stunning costumes, somber piano music, and, well, British accents. But it does not have to end there.
If you are already experiencing symptoms of Downton Abbey withdrawal then you’ve come to the right place. Book recommendations for Downton Abbey withdrawal is my specialty. Last year I went through a whirlwind phase of researching books for Downton Abbey fans. I distinctly remember one summer afternoon when I went to the library and picked up 5 or 6 books recommended for Downton Abbey fans that had come in as holds. I crammed them all into my tote bag, explaining to one of our librarians that I was doing research to prepare me for today. Faced with this melancholy reality, I oversteep my tea and find out it’s gone bitter, make awkward jokes about my Edith-like spinsterhood, and every so often hear an imaginary bell chiming in the distance.
But, dear reader, I have prepared for this moment and bring you all the book recommendations you could ever want in this definitive list of books to sooth Downton withdrawal. Rest assured, there are a bunch of recent novels and books, not to mention timeless classics, which can prop you up if you are in need of a literary fix. Without further ado, here is a definitive Downton reading list.
Part 1: Fiction
Downton Abbey, created by Julian Fellowes, has its roots deep in history. Well, it is a period drama, after all! Just as the series is founded in history, so too is it based on pivotal works of literature. I’m starting out this list with novels of historical literary significance and then bringing it back to more recent fiction. All of these books reached my ultra-strict selection criteria for books that have the similar appeal, plots, themes, and styles of Downton Abbey. Onwards!
The Passing Bells series by Phillip Rock. The Passing Bells series was first published in 1978. Written by Phillip Rock, the trilogy chronicles the wealthy English aristocratic Greville family, residents of Abingdon Pryory. The first novel, The Passing Bells, captures the time before the family was touched by World War I. Alexandra Greville has her debutante season while her brother Charles is smitten with a woman knowing full well his father, the Earl of Stanmoore, disapproves of the match. The novel also focuses on life downstairs among the servants, particularly the new girl, Ivy. The second novel, Circles of Time, is set in post-World War I Britain as society becomes looser and the Jazz Age is ushered in. The third novel, A Future Arrived, surrounds the generation of young adults in the 1930s who will face stark challenges yet to come. As you can imagine, I recommend this series to anyone who loves the epic sweep of Downton and in particular the way the younger generation—Edith, Mary, Tom, Matthew, Sybil, Rose—experience a world changing domestically and abroad. Read about the series here on Goodreads and purchase the first book, The Passing Bells, on Amazon here.
Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh. My freshman year at college I stumbled upon a beautiful clothbound edition of Evelyn Waugh’s 1945 classic, Brideshead Revisited, Being the Sacred & Profane Memoirs of Captain Charles Ryder. The novel takes the form of a memoir by Charles Ryder, an army officer from the second World War. Charles recounts his experience starting in 1923 with his close friend and fellow Oxford University student, Lord Sebastian Flyte. Charles accompanies Sebastian to his family’s house and is intoxicated by the culture of the fading aristocracy. Waugh’s novel is laced with criticism of Catholicism, wealth, and nobility. Sebastian and Charles’ relationship is laced with innuendo and sexual tension. I recommend this novel because I really identified it with as a young woman who had just moved to New York City and was surrounded by people who were wealthy and grew up with money. I, too, felt like an outsider. And there are many characters in “Downton” (e.g. Tom Branson) who felt the same perspective of looking at the British aristocracy from the outside in. Read more about Brideshead Revisited on Goodreads, and pick up a copy at Amazon here. There’s a really good overview of Brideshead Revisited at The Guardian here that looks at the novel’s legacy.
Love in a Cold Climate and other novels by Nancy Mitford http://amzn.to/22N1DS1 | https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/372812.Love_in_a_Cold_Climate_and_Other_Novels Nancy Mitford reminds me of Edith a little bit. Part of an aristocratic British family that produced many famous writers, Nancy Mitford is an author like Edith Crawley who highlights women’s rights, the conditions of the working poor, and the fading elite families. Oh, but Mitford is a lot of fun! There’s all the courtship you could want with talk of heirs and earls as well as amusing looks at upper class social conventions.
“The trouble is that people seem to expect happiness in life. I can’t imagine why; but they do. They are unhappy before they marry, and they imagine to themselves that the reason of their unhappiness will be removed when they are married. When it isn’t they blame the other person, which is clearly absurd. I believe that is what generally starts the trouble.” — Nancy Mitford, Christmas Pudding
Mitford was considered one the “Bright Young People,” a generation of movers and shakers between the wars. You can’t go wrong with a Mitford novel, but I chose Love in a Cold Climate because its main character, Polly Hampton, reminds me of all the Crawley girls. With lighthearted humor, Love in a Cold Climate chronicles Polly’s London debut (remember when Rose went to London and met the prince and had to do a lot of socializing in pretty dresses?) as she navigates suitors both undesirable and not. Never lost is the pressing need to find a suitable match, preferably one with a title and loads of money. Timeless and elegant with a biting wit, that’s Nancy Mitford for you. Check out Love in a Cold Climate on Goodreads and order a copy on Amazon here.
The Jeeves and Wooster Stories by P. G. Wodehouse. Oh boy do I love P. G. Wodehouse’s Bertie Wooster and Jeeves the Butler series. I first discovered them the summer before my freshman year of college, and rereading them during an emotionally taxing depression was a welcome distraction. Also, they’re just plain hilarious. Essentially, Jeeves is the old fashioned, stuffy butler to a helplessly daft dandy, Bertie Wooster. The servant class – aristocracy relationships of “Downton Abbey” are reflected in Wodehouse’s novels to a satirical degree. This collection I list here, Very Good Jeeves (1930), is my favorite one for someone first reading these witty stories. If one of your favorite parts of “Downton Abbey” was the quintessentially British expressions characters like the Dowager Countess, Wodehouse will be great fun. For maximum effect I recommend listening to an audiobook recording by British voice actor Jonathan Cecil so you can get all the nuances of the phrases, turns of speech, and jokes. The audiobook I mentioned is available through Audible, and you can purchase it on Amazon here. Very Good Jeeves is available on Amazon here, and you can read many fond reflections on it on Goodreads here.
The Forsyte Saga by John Galsworthy. If I had to describe John Galsworthy’s sprawling novel covering the well-to-do Forsyte family from 1886-1929, it’d be “Epic,” and that’s indeed what it is. Although more somber in tone, The Forsyte Saga is a comprehensive look at the peaks and valleys of the British aristocracy in the late 19th century through the post-World War I era. It was also made into a popular miniseries starring Damian Lewis (Brody in Homeland) and Rupert Graves (DI Lestrade in Sherlock). You can read more on IMDB here. Anyway, if you’re looking for a long novel (like 800 pages) to keep you occupied in your Downton Abbey withdrawal, Galsworthy’s 1920 saga is a sure bet. Read about it on Goodreads here and pick up a copy on Amazon here.
The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro. Kazuo Ishiguro’s 1988 novel won the 1989 Man Booker Prize and has become a contemporary classic. Stevens, a long-serving butler for a “gentleman,” goes on a six day car trip through the country to see a woman he once worked with and admired very much. The year is 1956, but Stevens flips back and forth from his time as a butler in the between-wars era. As Stevens considers the “remains of his days” he is able to see the aristocracy and in particular his lord in a more critical way. In a subtle voice Stevens, ever the man of decorum, presents an astonishing look at the working class in relation to the excess of the aristocracy that servants like Stevens so often had to prop up for the sake of appearances. Don’t miss this novel. Read more about the novel here on Goodreads and be sure to pick up a copy here on Amazon.
Past Imperfect by Julian Fellowes. Lest we forget, Julian Fellowes is the creator of Downton Abbey and wrote many of the scripts. Those ascerbic insults the Crawley sisters hurledy at each other? Julian Fellowes. The “other” family in the Crawley household, the servants? Their dialogue and chemistry, Julian Fellowes. Not to mention the various romantic subplots and day-to-day domestic drama upstairs and down. Well if you can’t get enough of Downton you might want to check out Fellowes’ novels, and I suggest you start with Past Imperfect (2008), which has a little magical realism as an older gentleman looks back at his youth among the British elite. Perhaps the difference between Past Imperfect (2008) and the other novels I’ve featured is that this one takes place after the so-called decline of the British aristocracy. With that you’ll get some astute observations and a bit of a ranting undercurrent, but the Fellowes dialogue is all there. Read more about this novel on Goodreads here and check out a copy on Amazon here.
We That Are Left by Clare Clark. Through its epic look at two wealthy sisters before, during, and after the Great War, Clare Clark’s 2014 novel We That Are Left is an immersive dip into that time period. With vivid detail, Clark chronicles Phyllis and Jessica as the war affects them and their world. You will find much in common with the Crawley sisters, from volunteering for the army to the pursuit of a romantic match (Also, look at that cover! It is Lady Mary, right?). I love the idea of this book because it, like some of the others here, depict the younger generation as the British aristocracy starts to decay and crumble around them. Though it takes a decidedly more somber tone, We That Are Left Behind has an unparalleled ability to bring this era and the young people who lived it to life. Read more about it on Goodreads and buy a copy here.
Bonus! Part 2: Audiobooks Read by the Downton Cast
There is one more type of book for Downton fans that I want to talk about. If you are a fan of the actors on the show, never fear—they live on and forever on demand in audiobook recordings. Here I’ll highlight a few cast members and what they’ve done. (The links go to Amazon where you can purchase the audiobooks through Audible. I love Audible because you can return audiobooks easily and there’s a great selection with many different affordable membership options. They also make a nice background for my nightly coloring sessions! Check out an Audible Free Trial [Digital Membership])
If you adored Matthew Crawley (and who didn’t?) you’ll find Dan Stevens’ audiobook performances as good as his Downton days, if not better. Stevens is a prolific audiobook narrator, having read everything from The Odyssey to And Then There Were None. My favorite is Frankenstein.
Penelope Wilton, who plays the well-meaning Isobel Crawley, aka Cousin Isobel, has also narrated many audiobooks, many of which are available through Audible. She reads Elizabeth Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters and also an abridged recording of Jane Eyre).
Elizabeth McGovern, aka Cora Crawley, the Countess, has also recorded many audiobooks. She read Laura Moriarty’s The Chaperone, a dazzling novel about one young woman’s who moves to 1922 New York City to become an actress. The story also focuses on the formidable woman, Cora, who accompanies her as a chaperone with the intent to discover the secrets of her own past. McGovern also narrated an abridged version of Henry James’ A Portrait of a Lady.