As I watched the long-awaited first episode of Season Three of Downton Abbey, my fingers itched for a book of 1920’s British etiquette. I own something like twenty-five etiquette books spanning more than a century, ranging from the more ubiquitous editions of Emily Post’s Etiquette to the obscure Social Manual for Seminarians. But all of the books I own are American.
An online search turned up three etiquette books, excerpts of which cast members of Gosford Park (also written by Julian Fellowes) were given during filming: The Book of Etiquette by Lady Troubridge; Eileen Terry’s Etiquette for All: Man, Woman, or Child; and Complete Etiquette for Ladies and Gentlemen: A Guide to the Observances of Good Society. We’ll see what inter-library loan requests for these yield, but in the meantime, I have some other fruit from this search, as well as some other reading inspired by this season of Downton Abbey.
His Grace Gives Notice (1922), by Laura Gurney (Lady) Troubridge
It turns out that the Lady Troubridge of The Book of Etiquette was also a novelist. Make no mistake – this is not Great Literature. But it has all of the upstairs-downstairs (melo)drama, the twists of fate, the romance, and the etiquette (oh, the etiquette!) of Downton Abbey. This is quintessentially a “novel of manners” in which good breeding – in all senses of the words – triumphs.
“You are a work of art, St. Bevis,” said Langley, “but you are in a bad frame. You are too young to belong to the nobility which is mistaken for its gardeners in the ancestral home. You need a new outfit. What you have may cover the body and meet the conventions, but they aren’t clothes as I understand the word.” So down Bury Street they strolled and ordered a young man’s wardrobe for visiting the Riviera. (p. 97)
Speaking of nobles being taken for gardeners, we have the book that might well have inspired the remark:
A Damsel in Distress (1919) by P. G. Wodehouse
If you have never cracked open anything by Wodehouse, it is high time you do. A Damsel in Distress features an earl, his only daughter, an American composer of musical comedies, mistaken identities, love, and giant leaps – to conclusions, and elsewhere – all delivered in Wodehouse’s quicksilver prose. (And it is an extra layer of entertainment to imagine the residents of Downton Abbey reading it…)
Inasmuch as the scene of this story is that historic pile, Belpher Castle, in the country of Hampshire, England, it would be an agreeable task to open it with a leisurely description of the place, followed by some notes on the history of the Earls of Marshmoreton who have owned it since the fifteenth century. Unfortunately, in these days of rush and hurry a novelist works at a disadvantage. He must leap into the middle of his tale with as little delay as he would employ in boarding a moving street car. He must get off the mark with the smooth swiftness of the Californian jack rabbit surprised while lunching. Otherwise, people throw him aside and go out to picture palaces.
A memoir by a kitchen-maid-turned-cook, which I reviewed on the blog last spring.
- “What the Help Really Saw” by Elizabeth Lowry (Wall Street Journal)
- Book Review by Martin Rubin (Washington Post)
- Book Review (Kirkus Reviews)
The Maid’s Tale: Life Below Stairs As It Really Was
by Rose Plummer with Tom Quinn
Similar cover, similar title font, and indeed, a similar story – but the different women bring out different aspects of the life of a servant. Like Below Stairs, nostalgia is not one of the dominant notes of The Maid’s Tale. While reading it, I had feelings of deep gratitude for my vacuum cleaner, stainless steel, and a society that does not demand spotless front steps.
Rose: My Life in Service to Lady Astor
by Rosina Harrison
This is the memoir of a lady’s maid – a lady’s maid, moreover, to the unique and remarkable Viscountess Astor – Nancy Witcher Astor, first female Member of Parliament. Lady Astor’s Wikipedia entry notes, “Lady Astor is nearly as famous for her scathing wit as she is for her political career,” and it took a strong woman to work so close to her for thirty-six years. The story of the two women is a fascinating one, worth reading.