If you’re one of the millions of viewers of the PBS Masterpiece series Downton Abbey, no doubt you’re feeling the first pangs of loss on the brink of tonight’s second-season finale. Downton Abbey is an award-winning, lavishly-detailed period production and costume drama which has a stellar cast and a legion of fans. The series’ first season opens in Edwardian England in 1912 at Downton Abbey, a stately English country house, and follow the lives of the wealthy Crawley family and their servants as the clouds of World War I loom and break. Season two takes the story through the upheaval and tragedy of the war back to peacetime, but to a world where personal relationships, social structures, and politics have all been irrevocably altered. Although season three is in production, scheduled to air first in Britain in autumn 2012 and later in the U.S, the coming months will be a long, long wait for diehard fans. But it’s my happy task to tell you that Manhattan Public Library has plenty of diversions to help get you through the coming Downton-Abbey-less months.
Firstly, if you’ve missed out on the series so far, you have plenty of time to catch up, starting with Downton Abbey’s first season on DVD and moving on to season two, both now at Manhattan Public Library. There is also a companion book to the series, The World of Downton Abbey by Jessica Fellowes, filled with photographs and illustrations, production sketches and research. Downton Abbey was filmed at Highclere Castle, the real-life ancestral home of the Earls of Carnarvon, and screenwriter Julian Fellowes drew inspiration from the history of the great home and the life of Almina, the Countess of Carnarvon during the same time period. Read more about the Almina’s life and times and the history of the castle, including its use as a wartime hospital, in Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey: the Lost Legacy of Highclere Castle by Fiona, current Countess Carnarvon. Downton Abbey fans can also check out Below Stairs: the Classic Kitchen Maid’s Memoir that Inspired Upstairs, Downstairs and Downton Abbey by Margaret Powell, a book which rocketed to best-seller status in the UK following the airing of Downton Abbey.
While you’re waiting for DA season three, why not revisit that other classic PBS series focusing on the intertwined lives of the upper class and the servant class, Upstairs, Downstairs? The library has all five seasons of the series, which originally aired in the 1970s and enjoyed an audience of nearly one billion viewers in over 40 countries. Also set during the Edwardian Age, Upstairs, Downstairs takes place in a large London townhouse, home to the wealthy Bellamy family. In its entirety, the combined seasons of this series offer an intimate view of the lives of both masters and servants from 1903 to 1930, as well as a panoramic overview of the social and technological changes taking place during those years.
For a different and highly-entertaining twist on life in a great English country house, check out the 2001 Robert Altman film, mystery-drama-comedy Gosford Park. This time landed gentry, their upstairs guests, and the downstairs servants gather for a “shooting party” in 1932 and are joined by members of the local village police constabulary as mayhem, drama, and high-jinks ensue. In addition to the interdependence of privileged and servant classes, the film subtly explores changing sexual mores of the time and the impact of the First World War. With a script by Downton Abbey writer Julian Fellowes, the film features a large ensemble cast that includes the indomitable Maggie Smith as well as Helen Mirren, Jeremy Northam, Kristin Scott Thomas, Michael Gambon, Stephen Fry, Derek Jacobi, Clive Owen, Alan Bates, and others.
Or look for Flambards, another great series on DVD at the library, which was based on the novels of K. M. Peyton and originally aired on PBS in 1980. Orphaned heiress Christina Parsons is sent to live with her tyrannical, bitter Uncle Russel and his two sons at their neglected and decaying country estate, Flambards. Speculation is that Russell plans to marry her to brutal, fox-hunting-obsessed son Mark and then use her inheritance to restore Flambards and the family’s finances. Christina, however, befriends second son, William, who is involved with early experiments in flight, hoping to become an aviator.
And finally, treat yourself to John Galsworthy’s absorbing, monumental work (in print or on DVD), The Forsyte Saga, which chronicles the lives and trials of generations of the upper-middle-class Forsyte family from 1906 into the 1920s.