Tales to help 'Downton' fans muddle through another long dry spell

Elizabeth McGovern as Lady Cora, from left, Hugh Bonneville as Lord Grantham, Maggie Smith as the Dowager Countess and Michelle Dockery as Lady Mary are shown in a scene from the second season of 'Downton Abbey.' The series was nominated for a Golden Globe award on Thursday, Dec. 13, 2012. The 70th annual Golden Globe Awards will be held on Jan. 13.

Photo by PBS

Elizabeth McGovern as Lady Cora, from left, Hugh Bonneville as Lord Grantham, Maggie Smith as the Dowager Countess and Michelle Dockery as Lady Mary are shown in a scene from the second season of "Downton Abbey." The series was nominated for a Golden Globe award on Thursday, Dec. 13, 2012. The 70th annual Golden Globe Awards will be held on Jan. 13.

As we prepare for another long "Downton Abbey" dry spell (the final Season 3 episode will air Sunday, Feb. 17), 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.

'The Passing Bells' by Phillip Rock (reissue of a 1978 novel, William Morrow)

"The Passing Bells" by Phillip Rock (reissue of a 1978 novel, William Morrow)

"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.

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"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."

'Habits of the House' by Fay Weldon (St. Martin's Press)

"Habits of the House" by Fay Weldon (St. Martin's Press)

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.

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"ABDICATION"

By Juliet Nicholson (Simon & Schuster, $15 paperback)

Setting: 1936 England.

"Downton" link: On the back cover "As addictive as 'Downton Abbey' ... "

'Abdication' by Juliet Nicholson (Simon & Schuster)

"Abdication" by Juliet Nicholson (Simon & Schuster)

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.

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"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.

'Park Lane' by Frances Osborne (Vintage)

"Park Lane" by Frances Osborne (Vintage)

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.

Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, shns.com

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