If you've watched the Downton Abbey movie and enjoyed it, you may want to read some books about the period it was set in. The movie revolves around a royal visit to the country house in the year 1927, well over a decade later than the Downton Abbey series. Not only is there a royal visit, but there is a plot to assassinate the king, George V. George V never, in reality, faced an assassination plot, but there is no doubt that the 1920s were anxious times for royalty in particular and the upper classes generally. The end of the First World War had seen the fall of the German and Russian monarchies, both cousins of George V, as well as the collapse of the Habsburgs' multi-national monarchy.
There was plenty of social and political change in Britain. Universal male suffrage was introduced soon after the end of World War I, leading to the rise of the Labour Party as a new political force in British politics. There was a general strike in 1926 and more and more people were beginning to think a socialist future inevitable. Noel Coward may have sung “The stately homes of England, how beautifully they stand, to show the upper classes have still the upper hand” but there was a great deal of uncertainty and anxiety about exactly how long that upper hand would last, or how long those stately homes would stand.
We choose five books here, to illustrate the period and the world of Downton Abbey.
by Henry Green
The book is about a group of what would have been dubbed ‘bright young things’ in the 1920s, aimless young people from the upper classes. They are about to set off to go to a party that’s taking place on the continent. It is a particularly foggy day and they never make it. They end up having a party in a hotel in Waterloo station. Around them in the station swirls the mass of people – the working classes – threatening to intrude into their lives. Henry Green was himself a bright young thing. He was educated at Eton and Oxford and a friend of the whole “Brideshead generation” but in this book he points out that the class system is changing and there won’t be a role for rich people who do nothing with their lives.
King George V
by Kenneth Rose
This is a highly recommended biography of the monarch at the centre of events in the film of Downton Abbey. King George V was the grandfather of the current Queen and ruled from 1910 until 1936. The book is full of insight and humanity, along with dry wit and revelation. It won the Whitbread Prize and the Wolfson Prize. Robert Lacey describes it as “the best royal biography ever written”.
by Keith Middlemas and John Barnes
A milestone biography that brings this extraordinary man to life. He brought calm to the nation and popularised the modern role of the prime minister. In spite of universal suffrage and the growing political importance of the Labour party, Stanely Baldwin, a small-c and big-C conservative, was the dominant political figure in Britain in the 1920s and 1930s. He kept England safe for the likes of the Crawleys for a generation after the end of World War I.
Life in the English Country House
by Mark Girouard
Written in the 1970s, this book delves into the social and architectural history of the English Country House – who built them, how they were lived in, how the servants operated. The focus is the 18th century, arguably the heyday of the country house. The 1920s may have been a more insecure time, but the social structures that existed in the country house – masters and servants – was largely unchanged.
by Robert Becker
This book tells the story of Nancy Lancaster, an American who married into British society and invented the 20th Century English country house style. She began decorating English country houses in the 1920s and in 1948 she bought Colefax and Fowler, the famous interior design business. This book tells how she bought American comfort and practicality to grand English homes, like Downton, bringing them up to date. Her aunt was Nancy Astor and her clients came largely from her own social connections. She had a big impact on the taste of people like the Crawleys of Downton.