In January, we finally say farewell to Lady Mary, the Earl of Grantham, the Dowager Countess, Thomas the footman, Carson, Mrs. Patmore, and all the cast of Downton Abbey. *Sob!* If you’ll miss the goings-on at Downton, we’ve put together a selection of true tales of life above and below stairs in a stately home, as well as stories from behind the scenes of the show, along with their publishers’ descriptions.
Ring the bell, have the butler bring up a tray of tea and cakes, and settle down for another fascinating peek at the life of the aristocracy and their servants.
True tales from upstairs
To Marry an English Lord by Gail MacColl and Carol McD. Wallace
From the Gilded Age until 1914, more than 100 American heiresses invaded Britannia and swapped dollars for titles — just like Cora Crawley, Countess of Grantham, the first of the Downton Abbey characters Julian Fellowes was inspired to create after reading To Marry an English Lord. Filled with vivid personalities, gossipy anecdotes, grand houses, and a wealth of period details — plus photographs, illustrations, quotes, and the finer points of Victorian and Edwardian etiquette — To Marry an English Lord is social history at its liveliest and most accessible.
Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey by the Countess of Carnarvon
Lady Fiona Carnarvon became the chatelaine of Highclere Castle — the setting of the hit series Downton Abbey — eight years ago. In that time she’s become fascinated by the rich history of Highclere, and by the extraordinary people who lived there over the centuries.
One person particularly captured Fiona’s imagination — Lady Almina, the 5th Countess of Carnarvon.
Almina was the illegitimate daughter of banking tycoon Alfred de Rothschild. She was his only daughter and he doted on her. She married the 5th Earl of Carnarvon, at 19, with an enormous dowry.
At first, life at Highclere was a dizzying mix of sumptuous banquets for 500 and even the occasional royal visitor. Almina oversaw 80 members of staff — many of whom came from families who had worked at Highclere for generations.
But when the First World War broke out, life at Highclere changed forever.
History intervened and Almina and the staff of Highclere were thrown into one of the most turbulent times of the last century. Almina was forced to draw on her deepest reserves of courage in order to ensure her family, the staff and the castle survived.
This is the remarkable story of a lost time. But Highclere remains, and in this book Fiona weaves Almina’s journey and those of her family into the heritage and history of one of England’s most exquisite Victorian castles.
Lady Catherine and the Real Downton Abbey by the Countess of Carnarvon
The follow-up to the international bestseller Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey, this book moves the story into the 1920s, and focuses on the remarkable American heiress who came to reign at Highclere Castle.
Catherine, a beautiful and spirited American woman who married Lady Almina’s son, the man who would become the 6th Earl of Carnarvon, presides over the grand estate during a tumultuous time for the British aristocracy. Following the First World War, many of the great houses of England faded as their owners fortunes declined in the new political and social world of the 1920s and 1930s. As war loomed, Highclere’s survival as the family home of the Carnarvons was again in the balance — as was peace between the nations of Europe.
Using copious materials — including diaries and scrapbooks — from the castle’s archives, the current Countess of Carnarvon brings alive a very modern story in a beautiful and fabled setting, paying particular attention to the staff who provide Highclere Castle with continuity between generations.
The Mistresses of Cliveden by Natalie Livingstone
From its dawn in the 1660s to its twilight in the 1960s, Cliveden was an emblem of elite misbehavior and intrigue. Conceived by the Duke of Buckingham as a retreat for his scandalous affair with Anna-Maria, Countess of Shrewsbury, the house later served as the backdrop for the Profumo Affair, which would bring down a government and change the course of British history.
In the three hundred years between the Countess and Christine Keeler, the house was occupied by a dynasty of remarkable women: Elizabeth Villiers, an intellectual who brokered the rise and fall of governments; Augusta of Saxe-Gotha, a minor German royal who almost became queen of England; Harriet Duchess of Sutherland, the glittering society hostess turned political campaigner; and Nancy Astor, the consummate controversialist who became the first woman to take a seat in parliament. Under the direction of these women, Cliveden provided a stage for political plots and artistic premieres, hosted grieving monarchs and republican radicals, was idealised as a family home, and maligned as a threat to national security.
The Mistresses of Cliveden is by turns a historical epic, a political thriller, a family drama, and an intimate history of the relationships between people and place. Above all, it is a story about sex and power, and the ways in which exceptional women have evaded, exploited, and confronted the expectations of their times.
Stately Passions by Jamie Douglas-Home
The story of Britain’s great stately homes and the scandals, predominately sexual, which the owners and their families have been involved in from the sixteenth century to the present day. It details some of the most notorious scandals to have engulfed the British royal family and aristocracy and captures not only the events and their era, but also the essence of some of the world’s greatest and most beautiful private dwellings. From the Hampton Court of Henry VIII to the modern scandals that saw the present Lord Brocket jailed, Stately Passions gives centre stage to the British stately homes that have played witness to centuries of aristocratic indiscretion.
Whether examining the ‘Profumo Affair,’ the call-girl scandal at Cliveden, the home of Viscount Astor, that eventually brought down a government, or the affairs of the lesbian Vita Sackville-West and her bisexual husband, Harold Nicolson, at Sissinghurst Castle; or considering the goings-on at Fort Belvedere, the Surrey bolthole where the Prince of Wales, later King Edward VIII, conducted his affair with the American divorcee Wallis Simpson that eventually led to his abdication, Stately Passions provides a fascinating insight into the lives, loves — and morals, dubious though they may be — of some notorious denizens of the aristocratic world.
True tales from downstairs
Minding the Manor by Mollie Moran
Born in 1916 in Norfolk, Mollie Moran is one of the few people still alive today who can recall working “downstairs” in the golden years of the early 1930’s before the outbreak of WWII. She provides a rare and fascinating insight into a world that has long since vanished. Mollie left school at age fourteen and became a scullery maid for a wealthy gentleman with a mansion house in London’s Knightsbridge and a Tudor manor in Norfolk.
Even though Mollie’s days were long and grueling and included endless tasks, such as polishing doorknobs, scrubbing steps, and helping with all of the food prep in the kitchen, she enjoyed her freedom and had a rich life. Like any bright-eyed teenager, Mollie also spent her days daydreaming about boys, dresses, and dances. She became fast friends with the kitchen maid Flo, dated a sweet farmhand, and became secretly involved with a brooding, temperamental footman. Molly eventually rose to kitchen maid for Lord Islington and then cook for the Earl of Leicester’s niece at the magnificent Wallington Hall.
Below Stairs by Margaret Powell
As a kitchen maid — the lowest of the low — she entered an entirely new world; one of stoves to be blacked, vegetables to be scrubbed, mistresses to be appeased, and even bootlaces to be ironed. Work started at 5:30am and went on until after dark. It was a far cry from her childhood on the beaches of Hove, where money and food were scarce, but warmth and laughter never were.
Yet from the gentleman with a penchant for stroking the housemaids’ curlers, to raucous tea-dances with errand boys, to the heartbreaking story of Agnes the pregnant under-parlor maid, fired for being seduced by her mistress’s nephew, Margaret’s tales of her time in service are told with wit, warmth, and a sharp eye for the prejudices of her situation.
Brilliantly evoking the long-vanished world of masters and servants, Below Stairs is the remarkable true story of an indomitable woman, who, though her position was lowly, never stopped aiming high.
Diamonds At Dinner by Hilda Newman and Tim Tate
The year was 1935: the twilight of the English aristocracy. It was a time of wealth and glamour; of lavish balls and evening gowns; of tiaras and a Coronation. As personal maid to Lady Coventry, Hilda had a unique insight into the leisured life of one of Britain’s most noble families. In her fascinating memoir of life upstairs and down, Hilda takes us back to a gilded era which would be brutally swept away by the Second World War. Hers is a very personal story of being transplanted from a tiny house with no bath or hot water to an 18th-century Neo-Palladian mansion surrounded by parkland landscaped by Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown. But it is also the remarkable story of the family whose service she entered – and that of Croome Court itself: during World War Two, it housed the Dutch Royal Family — who had fled the Nazi occupation — and it was also home to the top-secret RAF base where radar was developed. This is Hilda’s story.
True stories from behind the scenes
Behind the Scenes at Downton Abbey by Emma Rowley
Expertly crafted with generous inside knowledge and facts, this book will delve into the inspiration behind the details seen on screen, the choice of locations, the music and much more. Step inside the props cupboard or the hair and make-up truck and catch a glimpse of the secret backstage world. In-depth interviews and exclusive photos give insight into the actors’ experiences on set as well as the celebrated creative team behind the award-winning drama. Straight from the director’s chair, this is the inside track on all aspects of the making of the show.
Downton Abbey: A Celebration by Jessica Fellowes
From the moment we first entered Downton Abbey in 1912, Julian Fellowes has drawn us into the evocative and intriguing world of the aristocratic Crawley family and their servants. Now, in 1925, as Downton Abbey prepares to close its doors for the final time, Jessica Fellowes guides us through the house and the estate, showing us the evolution of both rituals and relationships in the emerging modern age. This extraordinary book will feature in-depth interviews with the cast and crew who know the show’s secrets, as well as a fascinating look at the changing styles and fashions of Downton and a complete episode guide to all six seasons up to the UK Christmas special. With hundreds of stunning, full-color location shots and stills, including exclusive behind-the-scenes photography from the final season, this glorious celebration is the ultimate gift for Downton Abbey fans.
Which of these books do you plan to read? Let us know in the comments!