Filling the Downton Abbey void

It’s maybe been a while since I mentioned that I loved Downton Abbey. I mean, it was a popular show, I’m not alone in this. The show definitely also sent me scurrying after related reading material. That’s how I came to read Lady Almina and the Real Downtown Abbey: The Lost Legacy of Highclere Castle, and then Lady Catherine and the Real Downton Abbey, and even Below Stairs, which really led to Serving Victoria.

Downton Abbey’s creator, Julian Fellowes, had a follow up show where he visits famous estates and digs around to find out some of the more interesting stories. It’s called Great Houses with Julian Fellowes and it’s awesome.

Recently, I read his new book, Belgravia.


Belgravia opens on the eve of the Battle of Waterloo, at the Duchess of Richmond’s ball in Brussels. The next day many of the guests go off to fight in the battle; many of them do not return. We meet the Trenchard family – James, his wife Anne and their beautiful daughter Sophia. James is a supplier to the army and his fortunes have been climbing as he’s able to achieve what most cannot. They manage to get an invite to the ball via Sophia’s relationship with Lord Bellasis, a favourite nephew of the Duchess of Richmond.

In a time when social rules dictated who could marry whom, Sophia is not a ‘good’ match for Lord Bellasis – her father works.

The rest of the story takes place in London in the 1840s, when those heady days in Brussels changes everything for these families.

I know – I’m being vague again. But the enjoyment of this book relies on one not knowing very much going in.

Here’s what’s interesting about Belgravia: yes, you can read it in traditional book format, but originally it was released as a serialization, both text and audio,  via an app! The book very much reads this way – each chapter feels episodic, there are cliffhangers, and I ended up speeding through the 402 pages.

Otherwise, this book was eminently readable. There is no one better when it comes to this type of historical feature. Fellowes has an incredible depth of knowledge when it comes to society, the relationships therein, the changes as a new class of wealth showed up on the scene intent on mingling with the top echelons of English Society, as well as the dynamics of service at the time. The characters feel like real people and Fellowes writes for an audience that he knows is capable of following along. He doesn’t write down to you, he doesn’t affect jargon of the time to try and lend his work more credibility. It just is credible. Even watching him on Great Houses, I’m always struck by how polite he is, how respectful he is of everyone he interacts with.

Perhaps that shouldn’t be notable, but it totally is.

If you miss Downton, this should fill the void.


Books I’m Bringing: Easter edition

I never used to get that excited about Easter. Yeah, there was chocolate involved but it also meant dressing up, lots of church and a dinner that involved a ham which has never been my favourite. But for the last several years, it’s meant an extra long weekend to visit my in-laws at the lake which has pushed Easter onto my list of favourite holidays.

As those of you that have been followers for a while know, this means it’s time to talk about the books that I’m bringing! Sometimes the weather is sunshiney and awesome, other times it’s cold and wet but really it doesn’t matter what the weather is doing because I can read inside or outside.

When I first started thinking about what to bring, I thought this might be a good time for some of the non-fiction I’ve been meaning to get to: Missoula, Bitch, The War That Ended Peace. But with the kind of week it’s been, I’m not sure my heart can take anymore rage.

So fiction it is.

I’m bringing:

The Hypnotist by Lars Keplar. This seriously twisted husband/wife duo wrote The Sandman , a book that I couldn’t read alone at my bus stop. The Sandman was actually the third in the series, The Hypnotist is the first. I think I will have to read this one early in the weekend because I suspect my father-in-law might be eyeing it down and it will stay behind for him.

A Hundred Summers by Beatriz Williams. A long weekend always seems like a good time to read about beach vacations. Memorial Day weekend in 1938 and a socialite beachfront community? Sign me up. I had been looking for this book for a long time and it always seemed to be sold out. Found it on my birthday for $5 – a sign.

Dead Man’s Folly by Agatha Christie. Surely you all know my rule by now: a long weekend must include Agatha Christie. I recently watched the new production of And Then There Were None (recommend) and it whetted my appetite for another good Agatha Christie caper.

Servant’s Hall: A Real Life Upstairs, Downstairs Romance by Margaret Powell. OK so I guess I’m breaking my no non-fiction resolution a little bit. But since this is a Downton-inspired read, a follow up to Below Stairs, I don’t think there’s too much risk of giving myself a rage stroke from this one.

The Last Days of Magic by Mark Tompkins. I feel like maybe my  life needs some magic right now so what’s better than a book of magic and mysticism, filled with Celts, fairies, mad kings, Druids and a goddess? Probably nothing. I hope that there is some sunshine to be had for this one – I suspect reading would be greatly enhanced sitting in a bright spot in the garden.

Be Frank With Me by Julia Clairborne Johnson. When I bought this, the woman at the register got really excited. She said it was charming and full of heart and said she thought I would love it. Alright then!

The Illegal by Lawrence Hill. I’ve spent the week listening to the panellists on Canada Reads talking about how great this book is, how beautifully written, what wonderful, inspiring characters it has and how readable it actually is. So now I want to find out how right they are.

Where should I start? What are you reading this long weekend?

Happy Easter!


The Real Downton Abbey

I love reading books about royal-esque women (Queens, Princesses, Empresses, Duchesses, Countesses etc) and I also love reading books about a certain time.

You know what combines these 2 things with a healthy dose of Downton Abbey love? Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey: The Lost Legacy of Highclere Castle.

You’re up for more Downton reads right? What with the 3rd season getting started in North America. We’re hungry for more. I think that Lady Almina will fit the bill.

Obviously the first draw to this book was the connection to Downton Abbey. How many more times do you think I can fit “Downton Abbey” into this post? Highclere Castle is where they actually film the show. But the story of the 5th Countess of Carnarvon (and the Earl for that matter) is a remarkable one.

For one thing, Lady Almina was basically illegitimate and she married an Earl. That just did not happen. Her mother was married (to a brutal alcoholic) but Almina was the fruit of a dalliance with one Alfred de Rothschild. If his name sounds familiar, it should. The family were kind of a big deal in banking. Had more money than they could ever know what to do it. Alfred acknowledged his daughter and actually, spoiled her rotten. She married an Earl, actually loved him and was totally accepted into society.

Crazy right?

I fear I’m giving away too much. Lady Almina lived a glamourous life. She was basically given free rein to do what she wanted. Luckily she felt a huge sense of responsibility to those that depended on her family for a livelihood, and during the Great War, to those young men giving their lives for Britain. She sounds like a really incredible person.

The book was full of that’s who that is? moments. Do you know what I mean by that? OK here’s one. The 5th Earl of Carnarvon? The guy who owned the real Downton Abbey at the time? He discovered King Tut’s tomb.


So the book is full of that – Lady Almina was very well connected through her father and her husband, even hosting the future King Edward VII for a weekend at the house (her father was best buds with him).

On the other side of things, the current Countess of Carnarvon doesn’t shy away from the less glamourous descriptions of life at the time. Life downstairs and on the estate (which had its own farm, dairy and brewery) is fully described as are major battles in the Great War. And the injuries that millions of soldiers suffered. Sometimes it was a bit hard to read because of it. I think we have a tendency to forget what that must have been like – the first time tanks and lethal gas were used in warfare.

Another tidbit for you – the current Earl of Carnarvon? Queen Elizabeth is his godmother.

What’s your favourite Downton read?