'Downton Abbey' for bookworms

With six Emmy awards, millions of viewers, and even a Guinness World Record for being the most critically acclaimed English-language television show of 2011, the PBS drama series "Downton Abbey" doesn't really need me to draw attention to it.

I just began watching the first season on Netflix and excitedly called a friend to sing the praises of the new show I "discovered." He yawned into the phone and said, "Yeah, I know. Everyone knows."

For those who haven't yet seen "Downton Abbey," the title refers to the Yorkshire country estate of the aristocratic Crawley family in Edwardian England. The series explores the lives of those who live at the abbey, the wealthy Crawley family above the stairs and their servants below. The first season opens with the news of the sinking of the Titanic in 1912, which sets the story in motion. Because of a legal technicality, a distant and relatively poor cousin is set to inherit the estate, snatching it out from under its occupants, who have cared for the abbey for generations. Intrigue follows, with a plotting grandmother (played by the fabulous Maggie Smith, who wears big purple hats and has the witchiest lines), stressed-out servants, and budding romances, all set against the imposing architecture, rigid manners and beautiful gowns of early 20th-century England.

It is easy for viewers to recall books of the era while watching "Downton Abbey." I'm thinking of the juicy novels where well-dressed ladies exchanged withering insults over a cup of tea and a plate of ginger cookies.

Those who like "Downton Abbey" should check out "Howard's End," by E.M. Forster. Set at the turn of the 20th century in England, the book follows the intertwined fortunes of the Schlegel sisters and the Wilcox family over the course of several years as they deal with class struggles and relationships. The strong heroine, snobby gentry and suppressed emotion make it a good read any time.

Another book that evokes the "Downton Abbey" spirit is "Brideshead Revisited," by Evelyn Waugh. The story explores British life after World War I. Its hero, Charles Ryder, recovers from wartime exhaustion at Brideshead, the family seat of Lord and Lady Marchmain. Ryder recalls adventures with his drunken friend Sebastian and romance with Sebastian's sister Julia before the war. "Brideshead" was made into a popular BBC drama series in the 1980s, worth renting for those who can't get enough of soft-spoken but deeply troubled Brits on the small screen.

One of the great things about "Downton Abbey" is that it focuses nearly as much on the lives of the servant class as on those of the aristocracy. For another fascinating peek at servant life, try "Rose: My Life in Service to Lady Astor," by Rosina Harrison. It is a memoir, starting in 1928, of Harrison's employment at the household of the Astor family as a personal maid to the temperamental Lady Nancy Astor.

History fans may like "The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy," by David Cannadine. Through miles of documents and statistics, Cannadine traces the shift of British aristocracy from its place as the wealthiest class in the wealthiest country in the 1870s to a loss of power, prosperity and prestige by the end of the 1930s.

"Downton Abbey" offers loads to discuss about class distinctions, income inequality, and sexism, but the best part is all the soap-opera-like cattiness. Not since watching "All My Children" with my grandmother when I was a teenager have I caught myself loudly gasping, "Oh my gawd, I can't believe she said that!" It's the perfect soap substitute for people who love drama and scandal, but will only admit to watching PBS. For those who won't admit to watching TV at all, period novels can offer an equivalent dose of fancy manners, snarky wit and complicated romance.

Angela Decker is a freelance writer in Ashland and can be reached at decker4@gmail.com.

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