Downton Abbey: extra credit

I’m a little obsessed with Downton Abbey right now. I watched the first season over Christmas and have been impatiently waiting for the weekly showings of the season two episodes. Sometimes a week is a very long time to wait.

In case you haven’t yet found Downton Abbey, skedaddle. You can find the first season on Netflix; the second season is showing on PBS.

The first season begins with the sinking of the Titanic and examines the laws of inheritance and the reinforcement of societal striations–lots of “our people” and “not our people” conversations. There is some talk about women’s suffrage, and a bit of talk about governmental policies, but it’s mainly about the personal dramas in Downton.

The first half of season two, though, broadens the focus a bit–it is all about England’s involvement in World War I; these suggestions for further reading reflect that emphasis.

Anyway, if you’ve already made it through all of the available Downton Abbey episodes, these will help tide you over.

A Very Long Engagement, Sebastian Japrisot

Of course, start with A Very Long Engagement. Sebastian Japrisot tells the story of Mathilde, a young French woman searching for her fiancé. Manech was one of five soldiers accused of cowardice in the trenches—although official sources report him dead, Mathilde believes he is still alive. In finding his story, she learns the stories of the other four soldiers—and each and every one is unforgettable. The book is great—and (shocking!) the movie is possibly even better. Both are quite, quite wonderful and very highly recommended.

The story is wonderful. I absolutely loved the book. But just look at these pictures from the movie—so gorgeous. Audrey Tautou plays Mathilde, Gaspard Ulliel plays Manech, Marion Cottilard is one of the other soldiers’ sweethearts, and Jodie Foster is a soldiers’ wife.

The movie was directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet (director of Amelie); several actors are in both films.


The Remains of the Day
, Kazuo Ishiguro

Stevens, a pre-war butler in post-war England, considers his life in service while trying to recruit a new housekeeper. Nearly his every thought–which we know, because the book is in first person—is focused on perfecting himself as a butler, of the dignity that is required, of the nobility of purpose, of the necessity of serving the right individual. But although he tries to keep himself focused on these self-improving thoughts, invariably he keeps returning to his memories of the one personal relationship in his long life—that time that Miss Kenton was the housekeeper at Darlington Hall.

It’s a wonderful book. And in 1993, a film version of the book was produced starring Anthony Hopkins as Stevens and Emma Thompson as Miss Kenton. So, so good.

And you really must read this blog post about the reality of servant’s quarters in the nineteenth century, complete with floor plans and interior diagrams. Fascinating.

Interested in some more World War I stuff? I knew you would be.

Anne Perry’s series of World War I novels is great. I’ve already talked about it at length, here, so if you want a little trench-flavored (ew) conspiracy, check them out.

Speaking of trench-flavored, I’ve been reading Eye-deep in Hell: Trench Warfare in World War I, by John Ellis. Definitely not for the weak-stomached—holy mother, is it gross (rats, and lice, and maggots, oh my!)—but incredibly fascinating. Ellis talks about everything from supply lines to trench foot to the average weight that a soldier carried around with him.

And check out this website, full of music from the era. A very old recording of the song Mary was singing when Matthew returned from the front (“If You Were the Only Girl in the World”) is on there, as well as many others.

Pictures of soldiers and battlefields and such can be found here. (Somewhat graphic and disturbing as hell. As it should be, considering the subject.)

This site has some fascinating information about the medical practices on the front lines.

And did you know more people died of Spanish Influenza just after the war than died in the war? I had no idea. Read more about it here.

And that might be just about enough to keep you occupied until next Sunday night!

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