'Downton Abbey' Premiere: Book Recommendations for Mary Crawley and Others
The fourth season of "Downton Abbey," which premieres this Sunday, will see the show's characters tossed in a sea of change—a result not only of the grim events that took place in season three (R.I.P., Lady Sybil and Matthew Crawley), but of the encroachments of modernity as well. The show picks up in 1922, a watershed year that brought big changes in the sciences, arts and human culture generally. We already know that Mrs. Patmore, Downton's screechy, pots-banging head cook, will have to reckon with the arrival of an electric mixer. What other changes will the modernist era bring to bear on the antiquated world of Downton?
Whatever they may be, the Crawley family and their associates would do well to keep pace by immersing themselves in the literature of the period. Among other things, 1922 was an impressive year for books; scholar Kevin Jackson recently wrote an entire history devoted to the literary events of the year. Here, we select fiction that would have been in stores in the time of Downton's fourth season and recommended them to the show's major characters.
Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham
Robert Crawley has struggled, ever since the show began, to adjust to the "havoc" that the modern era continually wreaks upon his old-fashioned family and ancient estate. Between kvetching about the inheritance of Downton and bemoaning the installation of a family telephone, the guy is pretty much locked in perpetual conflict with the tides of change. To give Robert Crawley a crash course in modernity—and, hopefully, change his mind about its validity—we're recommending James Joyce's modernist epic "Ulysses," which was published early in 1922. Easy reading it is not—but no one, not even the Earl of G, can turn the last page of that sucker without reconciling himself to the power and beauty of avant-garde experimentation.
Lady Mary Crawley
What kind of book do you recommend to the bereaved? Something lighthearted that gets their minds off of things, or something poignant that gets right to the heart of the matter? Mary, we know, has never been one to delude herself. In the wake of the death of her husband we think she'd appreciate a book that makes sense of death in an artful and unsentimental way. Published in 1922, Virginia Woolf's "Jacob's Room" is an experimental text "about" the life of a now-deceased English man named Jacob. I put that word in quotation marks because Jacob, for all his ostensible centrality to the story, never appears in the novel. Instead, his life story is narrated by various women who have known him. The technique creates a sense of absence and elegiac longing and invites readers to meditate on the nature of death and memory. It's not the most comforting grief reading material, but it's perhaps the most astute.
Cora Crawley, Countess of Grantham
I have to imagine that, despite the leisure and grandeur of life at Downton, a part of Cora Crawley misses America. While she and her family dine and gossip and perpetuate rigid class structures in their stuffy estate, the New World is alive with the excitement of the Roaring Twenties. To give her daughter a taste of this exuberance, Cora's mother (played brilliantly by Shirley MacLaine) should send over a copy of F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Beautiful and Damned." The novel—Fitzgerald's second—tells the story of Anthony Patch, heir and socialite, and his adventures in marriage, decadence, military service and alcoholism. It's got America written all over it.
Violet Crawley, Dowager Countess of Grantham
Given her knack for unraveling mysteries at Downton, I'm sure Violet Crawley would enjoy reading one written by the veritable Queen of Mystery, Agatha Christie. This novel introduces two of Christie's most famous characters, Tommy and Tuppence, a married couple who solve local crimes. "The Secret Adversary," like all of Christie's Tommy and Tuppence novels, is among her lighter efforts, full of tea-drinking and witty, sharp-tongued bickering. The Dowager Countess should get a kick out of it.
No stranger to risqué romance, underbutler Thomas Barrow would appreciate the writing of D.H. Lawrence, which concerns characters who pursue lives of passion and erotic excitement, even when their choices rub against the grain of societal norms. Thomas can read the stories on his cigarette breaks—a far better way to spend his time than by conniving to bring down other staffers.
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