Tales to entertain ‘Downton’ fans in dry spell

Published 12:00 am Sunday, February 17, 2013

As we prepare for another long “Downton Abbey” dry spell (the final Season 3 episode will air tonight), some of us will be looking for something Downton-ish to read. I sampled four current novels, all of which name-checked “Downton Abbey” on their covers. Alas, no character came close to the Dowager Countess, and in general there wasn’t nearly enough below-stairs scheming, but each offered pleasures of their own.
• “The Passing Bells” by Phillip Rock (reissue of a 1978 novel, William Morrow, $15.99 paperback).
Setting: World War I, in Surrey and overseas.
“Downton” link: The front cover reads “Before there was Downton Abbey, there was Abingdon Pryory.”
Wallow factor: High (it’s 516 pages, and the first of a trilogy).
Exquisite ancestral home: Abingdon Pryory, a magnificent brick-chimneyed pile in Surrey that’s an architectural mixture of Tudor, Queen Anne, Georgian and Victorian styles.
Upstairs/downstairs romance? Yes, between Ivy the chambermaid and Martin the visiting American cousin.
Fun historic-celebrity cameo: The poet Rupert Brooke, “a fine fellow with the ability to talk for hours without boring anyone.”
Sample outfit: “A long evening dress of pale-green silk embroidered with seed pearls, the bodice cut with a discreet plunge.”
Sample meal: The lady of the house, feeling peckish at teatime, is served “a high tea, with watercress sandwiches and thinly sliced ham and smoked Scotch salmon.”
Overall effectiveness as a “Downton” substitute: If you liked the World War I action in Season 2, there’s much along those lines here; less attention is paid to the at-home drama.
• “Habits of the House” by Fay Weldon (St. Martin’s Press, $25.99 hardcover).
Setting: 1899 London.

“Downton” link: A blurb on the front cover reads “An entertaining romp for ‘Downton Abbey’ fans.”
Wallow factor: Moderate (306 pages), but this is the first of a planned trilogy.
Exquisite ancestral home: Dilberne Court, in the Hampshire hills, but this story takes place in the Earl of Dilberne’s elegant rented town house in London’s Belgrave Square.
Upstairs/downstairs romance? Not really, though the son of the household is considering marriage to an heiress who is, in a Lady Mary sort of way, “compromised.”
Fun historic-celebrity cameo: At a party, “H.D. Wells affected not to recognize Henry James, rather unkindly asking who the hippopotamus was.”
Sample outfit: A very up-to-date female cyclist pedals away in “a crimson high-necked and red-corded tailored jacket, with cross-braiding down the bodice and a vaguely military air, a pair of divided skirts gathered at the ankles, and high-laced button boots.”
Sample meal: A menu for a dinner party includes “pheasant soup, caviar, tartlets of crayfish in a cream sauce, turbot with tartar sauce, grouse sauteed in sherry, ducklings foie gras with brandy and truffles, baron of lamb, a liqueur sorbet, salad, cheese, fruit, and a gelee marbree.”
Overall effectiveness as a “Downton” substitute: Enjoyably light, and filled with rich description and familiar plots (such as the Earl’s potential financial ruin); it made me sorry the next installment isn’t available yet.
•“Abdication” by Juliet Nicholson (Simon & Schuster, $15 paperback).
Setting: 1936 England.

“Downton” link: On the back cover “As addictive as ‘Downton Abbey’ … “
Wallow factor: Moderate (342 pages).
Exquisite ancestral home: Cuckmere Park in Sussex, a manor house whose stone walls smell of ancient cigar smoke.
Upstairs/downstairs romance? Yes, between a female chauffeur and a middle-class friend of the family.
Fun historic-celebrity cameo: Virginia Woolf, whose cook is friends with the Cuckmere Park housekeeper, and who admits to a “terribly nosy habit of wanting to know every detail about everyone.”
Sample outfit: A floor-length silver sheath accessorized with “the very latest thing in chic”: a velvet evening bag with a working watch for a clasp.
Sample meal: At a dinner hosted by Wallis Simpson, the king and other guests were served individual spinach souffles with watercress sauce, escalope de veau en creme, and Grand Marnier bombe glacee — followed, for the ladies, by “tiny glasses of a substance resembling mouthwash.”
Overall effectiveness as a “Downton” substitute: The period’s a little off, but the book — and the time and details it captures — is engrossing.
• “Park Lane” by Frances Osborne (Vintage, $15.99 paperback).
Setting: London, World War I era.
“Downton Abbey” link: On the back cover, a complimentary blurb from “D.A.” creator Julian Fellowes.
Wallow factor: Moderate (320 pages).
Exquisite ancestral home: It’s a city home, but Number 35 Park Lane is nonetheless thoroughly posh.
Upstairs/downstairs romance? Yes, eventually, but it’s spoiler-y so I’ll say no more.
Fun historic-celebrity cameo: Notorious British suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst, who leads rallies attended by a curious Bea (the daughter of the house).
Sample outfit: For Bea, a “pale-grey net tunic embroidered with a vast beaded butterfly that must be nearly a foot across.”
Sample meal: Bea eats, at a suffragettes’ center, four “small triangles of sandwiches … they were paste, and they were revolting.” Do I really want to know what a paste sandwich is?
Overall effectiveness as a “Downton” substitute: Osborne’s writing is often off-puttingly florid, but Bea may well make you think of Lady Sybil, had she lived in town.
Moira Macdonald is the movie critic for The Seattle Times. Email mmacdonaldseattletimes.com.