If you’re a Downton Abbey fan, you know how incredibly fascinating life above or below the stairs can be. Packed with all the glitz, drama, and forbidden romances that made the television series a break-out hit, this list of books like Downton Abbey gives fans everything they’ve been yearning for, plus the chance to revisit timeless classics. Publishers’ descriptions below.
House of Mirth by Edith Wharton
Raised among New York’s high society, Lily Bart is beautiful, charming, and entirely without means. Determined to maintain the extravagant lifestyle to which she is accustomed, Lily embarks on a mission to marry a wealthy man who can secure her station. However, the businesslike proposals from her many suitors remain fruitless, and her thoughts keep returning to the one man she truly loves. Bedeviled by debt, betrayal, and vicious gossip, she is forced to confront the tragic cruelty just beneath the surface of the Gilded Age.
First appearing in Scribner’s Magazine as a monthly serial, The House of Mirth was a runaway bestseller upon its release as a full-length novel in 1905. Hailed as “a fireworks display of brilliantly sardonic social satire deepened by a story of thwarted love” by the Wall Street Journal, it was the first popular and critical success for Edith Wharton, who went on to become the first female author to win the Pulitzer Prize. Since its initial publication, The House of Mirth has been adapted into two feature films and continues to captivate modern readers.
The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James
The heroine of this powerful novel, often considered James’s greatest work, is the spirited young American Isabel Archer. Blessed by nature and fortune, she journeys to Europe to seek the full realization of her potential — or in modern terms, “to find herself” — but what awaits her there may prove to be her undoing. During her journey, wooers vie for her attentions, including an English aristocrat, a perfect American gentleman, and a sensitive expatriate. But it is only after the ingenue falls prey to the schemes of an infinitely sophisticated older woman that her life takes on its true form. With its brilliant interplay of tensions and characters, The Portrait of a Lady is a timeless and essential American novel.
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
When Elizabeth Bennet first meets eligible bachelor Fitzwilliam Darcy, she thinks him arrogant and conceited; he is indifferent to her good looks and lively mind. When she later discovers that Darcy has involved himself in the troubled relationship between his friend Bingley and her beloved sister Jane, she is determined to dislike him more than ever. In the sparkling comedy of manners that follows, Jane Austen shows the folly of judging by first impressions and superbly evokes the friendships,gossip and snobberies of provincial middle-class life.
Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray
This classic story of two 19th-century social climbers is the basis for countless films and TV series, and one of the UK’s “Best-Loved Novels.”
Before the Real Housewives, there were Becky Sharp and Amelia Sedley. Ruthless and cunning, Becky may have been born in a lower class, but now that she’s graduated from school, she’s ready to climb up to a better life — and do whatever it takes to get there. Her friend Emmy, however, is the opposite. She may have mastered music, dancing, and embroidery like any young woman of her class, but she utterly lacks a backbone.
Together these friends navigate the perils of Regency society as they search for love and happiness. Social battles are waged against the backdrop of the Napoleonic Wars, and when the smoke finally clears, there’s no telling who will come out victorious.
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
Charlotte Bronte’s enduring classic — the story of a young woman’s quest for love and acceptance in Victorian England.
The young orphan Jane Eyre inhabits a fragile position. Born to a good family but with no wealth of her own, Jane is sent to live with her uncle’s family — an arrangement that turns sour when he dies – -and then to Lowood, a punitive and tyrannically run boarding school for girls. As she matures into adulthood, Jane’s fiery spirit and independence grow more acute, as does her sensitivity to the world around her. Now governess of the secluded Thornfield Hall, the first place she has ever really felt at home, Jane falls in love with the passionate and impulsive Edward Rochester, master of the house. Just when it seems her luck has finally changed, Jane discovers the secret of the attic — a terrible revelation that threatens to destroy her dreams of happiness forever.
Narrated in the unforgettable voice of its remarkable heroine, Jane Eyre is a timeless tale of heartbreak, mystery, and romance that shines a brilliant light into the dark corners of Victorian society.
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” So begins Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy’s great modern novel of an adulterous affair set against the backdrop of Moscow and St. Petersburg high society in the later half of the 19th century. A sophisticated woman who is respectably married to a government bureaucrat, Anna begins a passionate, all-consuming involvement with a rich army officer. Refusing to conduct a discreet affair, she scandalizes society by abandoning both her husband and her young son for Count Vronsky — with tragic consequences. Running parallel is the story of the courtship and marriage of Konstantin Levin (the melancholy nobleman who is Tolstoy’s stand-in) and Princess Kitty Shcherbatsky.
Levin’s spiritual searching and growth reflect the religious ideals that at the time Tolstoy was evolving for himself. Taken together, the two plots embroider a vast canvas that ultimately encompasses all levels of Russian society. ”Now and then Tolstoy’s novel writes its own self, is produced by its matter, but its subject,” noted Vladimir Nabokov. “Anna Karenina is one of the greatest love stories in world literature.” As Matthew Arnold wrote in his celebrated essay on Tolstoy: ”We are not to take Anna Karenina as a work of art; we are to take it as a piece of life.”
Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
Direct and vivid in her account of Clarissa Dalloway’s preparations for a party, Virginia Woolf explores the hidden springs of thought and action in one day of a woman’s life.
In Mrs. Dalloway, the novel on which the movie The Hours was based, Virginia Woolf details Clarissa Dalloway’s preparations for a party of which she is to be hostess, exploring the hidden springs of thought and action in one day of a woman’s life. The novel “contains some of the most beautiful, complex, incisive and idiosyncratic sentences ever written in English, and that alone would be reason enough to read it. It is one of the most moving, revolutionary artworks of the 20th century” (Michael Cunningham).
This Side of Paradise by F. Scott Fitzgerald
The bestselling novel that established F. Scott Fitzgerald’s literary reputation and brought to vivid life the glory and despair of the “Lost Generation.”
Raised by his mother, a charismatic eccentric determined to show her son the very best that life has to offer, Amory Blaine spends his childhood traveling from one party to the next. For this worldly sophisticate, life is heaven — until reality comes crashing through the door.
When a burst appendix limits his mobility, Blaine is sent to live in Minneapolis, where he finds that his unique sensibility does not endear him to the other boys. From prep school to Princeton to the crushing inhumanity of the US Army during World War I, Blaine searches for his proper place in the world. His quest brilliantly personifies the struggles of an entire generation that came of age in a time of great turmoil.
Howards End by E .M. Forster
The self-interested disregard of a dying woman’s bequest, an impulsive girl’s attempt to help an impoverished clerk, and the marriage between an idealist and a materialist — all intersect at a Hertfordshire estate called Howards End. The fate of this beloved country home symbolizes the future of England itself in E. M. Forster’s exploration of social, economic, and philosophical trends, as exemplified by three families: the Schlegels, symbolizing the idealistic and intellectual aspect of the upper classes; the Wilcoxes, representing upper-class pragmatism and materialism; and the Basts, embodying the aspirations of the lower classes. Written in 1910, Howards End won international acclaim for its insightful portrait of English life during the post-Victorian era.
A Hazard of New Fortunes by William Dean Howells
Centering on a conflict between a self-made millionaire and an idealistic reformer in turn-of-the-20th-century New York, A Hazard of New Fortunes insightfully renders the complexities of the American experience at a time of great social and economic upheaval and transformation. In its depiction of wealth, poverty, and New York City life, it remains a strikingly contemporary work.
Bleak House by Charles Dickens
The story of a lengthy, byzantine court-case, Bleak House brings together some of Dickens’ most memorable characters in an intertwining story of love, murder and greed. At the centre is a case of Jarndyce vs. Jarndyce, a generations long battle over inheritance that connects all the principal characters, including the heroine Esther Summerson, a prospective beneficiary of the will Richard Carstone, the wealthy and kind John Jarndyce and the villainous lawyer Mr. Tulkington. Involving many, engaging sub-plots Bleak House is also an attack on the flaws of Britain’s legal system of the time. It is not only considered one of Dickens best works but has been credited with helping to spark demand for real judicial reform after its publication in 1853.
The Good Soldier by Ford Maddox Ford
Handsome, wealthy, and a veteran of service in India, Captain Edward Ashburnham appears to be the ideal “good soldier” and the embodiment of English upper-class virtues. But for his creator, Ford Madox Ford, he also represents the corruption at society’s core. Beneath Ashburnham’s charming, polished exterior lurks a soul well-versed in the arts of deception, hypocrisy, and betrayal. Throughout the nine years of his friendship with an equally privileged American, John Dowell, Ashburnham has been having an affair with Dowell’s wife, Florence. Unlike Dowell, Ashburnham’s own wife, Leonora, is well aware of it.
The Awakening by Kate Chopin
When first published in 1899, The Awakening shocked readers with its honest treatment of female marital infidelity. Audiences accustomed to the pieties of late Victorian romantic fiction were taken aback by Chopin’s daring portrayal of a woman trapped in a stifling marriage, who seeks and finds passionate physical love outside the straitened confines of her domestic situation.
Aside from its unusually frank treatment of a then-controversial subject, the novel is widely admired today for its literary qualities. Edmund Wilson characterized it as a work “quite uninhibited and beautifully written, which anticipates D. H. Lawrence in its treatment of infidelity.”
Although the theme of marital infidelity no longer shocks, few novels have plumbed the psychology of a woman involved in an illicit relationship with the perception, artistry, and honesty that Kate Chopin brought to The Awakening. Now available in this inexpensive edition, it offers a powerful and provocative reading experience to modern readers.
The Glitter and the Gold by Consuela Vanderbilt Balsan
A new edition of Consuelo Vanderbilt Balsan’s memoir — the story of the “real” Lady Grantham of Downton Abbey Consuelo Vanderbilt was young, beautiful, and heir to a vast fortune. She was also in love with an American suitor when her mother chose instead for her to marry an English Duke. She sailed to England as the Duchess of Marlborough in 1895 and took up residence in her new home — Blenheim Palace. She was the real American heiress who lived long before Downton Abbey’s Lady Grantham arrived. Mme. Balsan is an unsnobbish and amused observer of the intricate hierarchy both upstairs and downstairs and a revealing witness to the glittering balls, huge weekend parties, and major state occasions she attended or hosted chronicling her encounters with every important figure of the day — from Queen Victoria, Edward VII and Queen Alexandra to Tsar Nicholas and the young Winston Churchill. The Glitter and the Gold is a richly enjoyable memoir is a revealing portrait of a golden age now being celebrated every week behind the doors of Downton Abbey.
Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh
The wellsprings of desire and the impediments to love come brilliantly into focus in Evelyn Waugh’s masterpiece — a novel that immerses us in the glittering and seductive world of English aristocracy in the waning days of the empire.
Through the story of Charles Ryder’s entanglement with the Flytes, a great Catholic family, Evelyn Waugh charts the passing of the privileged world he knew in his own youth and vividly recalls the sensuous pleasures denied him by wartime austerities. At once romantic, sensuous, comic, and somber, Brideshead Revisited transcends Waugh’s early satiric explorations and reveals him to be an elegiac, lyrical novelist of the utmost feeling and lucidity.
Below Stairs by Margaret Powell
Brilliantly evoking the long-vanished world of masters and servants portrayed in Downton Abbey and Upstairs, Downstairs, Margaret Powell’s classic memoir of her time in service, Below Stairs, is the remarkable true story of an indomitable woman who, though she served in the great houses of England, never stopped aiming high. Powell first arrived at the servants’ entrance of one of those great houses in the 1920s. 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 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-parlormaid, 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. Margaret Powell’s true story of a life spent in service is a fascinating “downstairs” portrait of the glittering, long-gone worlds behind the closed doors of Downton Abbey and 165 Eaton Place.
Mapp and Lucia by E.F. Benson
Meet Mapp and Lucia — two of the most unpleasant, disgraceful women you’re ever likely to encounter, in E.F. Benson’s carefully observed tale of 1930s village life and social ranking.
Emmeline Lucas (known as Lucia to her friends) is emerging from mourning following the death of her husband. Pretentious, snobbish, and down-right devious, she feels her hometown of Riseholme offers no challenges and decides to vacation in the town of Tilling. She rents “Mallards” from Miss Mapp. The two women clash immediately. Miss Mapp is used to being top of the social ranking in Tilling, and there is no way she is going to let a vulgar outsider claim her position. So begins a battle of one-upmanship, peppered with queenly airs, ghastly tea parties, and unnerving bridge evenings as the two combatants attempt to out-do each other to win social supremacy. The pompous Lucia and malignant Mapp are characters you will love to hate, wonderfully penned by E.F. Benson. Darkly comic and witty, it is soon to be a new BBC series written by Steve Pemberton.
The Edwardians by Vita Sackville-West
An instant bestseller when it was published in 1930, this glittering satire of Edwardian high society features a privileged brother and sister torn between tradition and a chance at an independent life.
Sebastian is young, handsome, moody, and the heir to Chevron, a vast and opulent ducal estate. He feels a deep love for the countryside and for his patrimony, but he loathes the frivolous social world his mother and her shallow friends represent. At one of his mother’s decadent house parties, Sebastian meets two people who shake his sense of self: Leonard Anquetil, a lowborn arctic explorer, who questions his mode of living; and Lady Roehampton, a married society beauty with a string of lovers, who breaks his heart. When Sebastian reaches the brink of despair, it is his self-possessed younger sister, Viola, who opens for them both a gateway to another world.
Which of these classics would you recommend? Tell us in the comments!
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