Downton Abbey: Updates to My Reading List

In April I plan to return to researching and writing on early twentieth-century economic and social issues beyond those featured in Downton Abbey. Before I do, I want to provide an update to my reading list from Season Three to include quick reviews of new material I used for this season.

I picked up three new books while conducting research for Season Four:

The first, The Decline and Fall of the Aristocracy, by David Cannadine, is an excellent book for anyone who wants to hunker down and read about the long, sometimes painful transition of the wealthy elite following World War I. It is comprehensive, detailed, and thoroughly researched. Cannadine weaves together the economic, social, and political changes that led to the decline of the landed aristocracy using journals, letters, and archives.  While a long book at over 700 pages, it remains an engaging read all the way through. If you are using it for research, I would note that the index is only useful if you are hunting down information on a specific person or region of England. However, the book does not punish a reader for skipping around and the chapter titles give you a good indication of what to expect in each.

The second book, The Servants, by Lucy Lethbridge, is a very quick read but it was not my favorite book. I found it similar to Pamela Horn’s book,Life Below Stairs in the Twentieth Century, published a decade earlier.  The appetite for an updated book on the same issues obviously stems from a renewed interest in the era through shows like Downton Abbey. However, I think you could find the topic of servant life being discussed elsewhere with greater nuance and detail.

If you want a first-hand account of what life was like for a servant, I’d recommend Eric Horne’s memoir, What the Butler Winked At: Being the Life and Adventures of Eric Horne, Butler. Horne spent his whole life in service and the book is filled with serious reflections on his various roles and small, funny anecdotes about what he saw and experienced. When I read the book last year, I used a very worn edition available at the Library of Congress because it was unavailable online or in stores. I am thrilled to see the reprint is now available (and restocked) on Amazon; I highly recommend picking it up.

The third book I discovered this year was Sinners? Scroungers? Saints?: Unmarried Motherhood in Twentieth-Century England, by Pat Thane and Tanya Evans. The authors used archives from the National Council for the Unmarried Mother and her Child (now known as the organization Gingerbread) to move beyond stereotypes of unwed mothers. This book was key for my research into Edith’s options when she found herself unexpectedly pregnant and quite alone. I particularly enjoyed reading about the unexpected advocates who worked so hard to remove the stigmas and shame surrounding unmarried mothers in early twentieth century Britain.  Along these lines, I also revisited Virginia Nicholson’s Singled Out: How Two Million British Women Survived Without Men After the First World War that was so helpful during my research from Season Three. Nicholson’s book is especially valuable when thinking about Edith and her transformation over the seasons. (I find it interesting that I have two key sources tagged especially for Edith but no single source I turn for Mary – maybe that will change next season!)

Happy reading!


2 thoughts on “Downton Abbey: Updates to My Reading List”

  1. Frederick Gorst’s Of Carriages and Kings and George by Nina Slingsby-Smith are even better resources than Horn’s book (his work is veeeerry chatty and impenetrable if you aren’t in the know).

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