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[Editor: Downton Abbey comes to the "big screen" with a feature film-length installment that opens in the United States on September 20, 2019. We are reposting this article from the archives from 2016 regarding how the series regularly incorporated contemporary books into their episodes.]


The makers of Downton Abbey go to great lengths to get their period details and history correct, and one of the ways they do this is by incorporating contemporary books into conversations and even at times the main plot.

In fact, it can be difficult to find an episode of Downton where the references to Dickens, Trollope, or now-obscure English historians are not flying thick and fast. When Lady Edith started dating a London editor, one expected to meet Virginia Woolf or E.M. Forster at a party any moment. Alas, poor Michael Gregson died before the producers could work a Bloomsbury party into the show.

(Post script: After this post was first published, I attended the "Dressing Downton" exhibition at Asheville, NC's Biltmore House -- which has a stunning library -- and discovered that Virginia Woolf was a guest at that London party, albeit in a blink-and-you'll-miss-it, non-speaking role. Her costume is the one on the right of the photo below. The exhibition was so popular it went on tour, and an expanded version will open at the Biltmore House in November 2019 and run until early April 2020.)

Virginia Woolf costume Downton Abbey

Outfits worn by Lady Sybil (left) and Virginia Woolf (r) in Downton Abbey. Shown in the Biltmore House as part of the "Dressing Downton" exhibition in early 2015. (Source: Cincinatti Enquirer.) 


Given creator Julian Fellowes' attention to detail and habit of tangling the fictional Crawleys in real historical events, those featured books are genuine and are generally well-chosen. The discerning Downton Abbey fan would do well to search the ABAA database for some of these titles, as they will not be found at your average bookstore. Here are some of the more-prominent titles to have featured on Downton Abbey


Gutenberg Bible

Bibliophiles and book collectors have admired the Crawleys' wonderful library for years -- Oh, to have 10 minutes to investigate their bookshelves! However, serious collectors weren't very impressed when Robert revealed they have a Gutenberg Bible, but he didn't know where it was!  Imagine owning one of the 49 known surviving copies of one of the world rarest books (even fewer at the time the show is set), and not knowing where to find it.  The best most of us can hope for is to own a facsimile edition. But, sadly, the Crawley family are not known for their intellectual curiosity (except for Isobel's shining example, of course).


Peerage Guides

Carson the butler would fully approve of a purchase of any edition of a peerage guide, such as Debrett's or Burke's, two longtime guides to who's-who among the British nobility. ABAA members usually have several offerings available, from different decades.

When Matthew Crawley, an obscure third cousin, was revealed to be the new heir to the lands and titles of the Earl of Grantham, family members were chagrinned. But Robert took it in his stride and commented that they should simply check DeBrett's, one of several guides to the peerage that are continually referenced in the series, as if that should settle matters. If this unknown lawyer from Manchester was listed in DeBrett's, it was unassailable proof of his membership of the aristocracy -- whether the Dowager Countess liked it or not! Later, Carson did not approve of Matthew's new fiancée, Lavinia Swire, because she was "not to be found in Burke's Peerage, or even Burke's Landed Gentry!


Marie Stopes' Married Love

Perhaps the most prominent book to feature in Downton in recent seasons is Marie Stopes' pioneering work on contraception and pregnancy, Married Love. Stopes had finished her manuscript in late 1915, but every publisher in London turned it down because of the certain controversy. It was finally published in 1918, and was an instant cause-celebre, selling out five printings in the first year alone.

Mrs. Hughes used the mere presence of the book to undermine Edna's plan to seduce Tom Branson and compel him to marry her in season four. And, the book resurfaced to cause trouble between Anna and Bates in season five.


Elizabeth and her German Garden

In season two, when Mr. Molesly, the younger ("You make him sound like a Greek philosopher," quipped the Dowager Countess) was attempting to court Anna (in the brief period when Bates had gone back to his wife) he loaned her a copy of Elizabeth Von Armin's Elizabeth and Her German Garden, as an ice-breaker. Although first published (anonymously) in 1898, Elizabeth and her German Garden was a hugely popular book in the early decades of the twentieth century -- doubtless because it was humorous and idiosyncratic, in stark contrast to the deadly seriousness of so much Victorian culture. 


The Sketch Magazine

The SketchIn the very first episode, we learned that Cora was a regular reader of The Sketch, a weekly news magazine devoted to the aristocracy and society gossip. As we enter season six, the magazine that Edith inherited from the late Michael Gregson comes to take up more and more of her time, giving us a glimpse into the low-tech world of magazine production in the days before Photoshop. 

Incidently, The Sketch was the first magazine to publish short stories by Agatha Christie, who went on to become a frequent contributor over the years. Other notable writers who published fiction in the magazine include Walter de la Mare and Algernon Blackwood.

Search for copies of The Sketch....


Sources and Inspiration for Downton Abbey

Julian Fellowes has written that reading To Marry an English Lord (1989) by Carol McD Wallace and Gail MacColl gave him the initial spark for the family dynamic at the heart of Downton Abbey: the tension between an old title and new money. More recently, the republication of Margaret Powell's 1968 memoir Below Stairs occasioned a blurb from Fellowes that credited it with also informing Downton. Below Stairs can also be credited for inspiring Upstairs, Downstairs, the hit drama that followed the lives of both servants and the aristocrats in a London townhouse during the early decades of the twentieth century, which first aired in 1971 and largely kick started the popularity of British period dramas.

Following the completion of the six seasons of the show, Fellowes recommended three other books which he felt gave great insight into the world of the great houses and the issues their owners had to confront in the early part of the twentieth century; these books are: Edwardians in Love (1972) by Anita Leslie, The Big House (2004) by Christopher Simon Sykes, and Chatsworth: The House (2002 edition) by the late Duchess of Devonshire. 



One novel that Fellowes has acknowledged partially inspired his script for the film Gosford Park -- which was a kind of dress-rehearsal for the series Downton Abbey -- is Isabel Colegate's 1980 novel The Shooting Party


The World of Downton Abbey

Another step removed from the show, are books relating to service, including this unusual book of advice and instruction published by the Sunday School Union in 1828, A Farewell to a Female Scholar on Going into Service. With one of season five's plot lines concerning assistant-cook Daisy's attempts to educate herself, I doubt she received such a volume on beginning work at the abbey.



Other books mentioned or appearing in the series include:


The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame

"Edith! You are a lady, not Toad of Toad Hall." -- The Dowager Countess to Edith about her learning to drive.



by Kenneth Grahame

The Wind in the Willows

London: Methuen and Co., 1908. Original publisher's medium blue-green pictorial cloth, spine and upper cover elaborately decorated in gilt, t.e.g. Frontispiece by Graham Robertson. Tiny pictorial bookplate on front pastedown (Mary Elizabeth Hudson), pencil note on front free endsheet, trace of slight rubbing to extremities, two leaves opened with less than complete care, resulting in purely marginal shallow irregularities, otherwise an unusually nice, virtually fine copy, though wanting the dust jacket. Cloth solander case with chemise and gilt label. First edition of Grahame's enduring contribution to the shared literature of young and old, composed originally as a sequence of letters to his son, and as a consequence of its popularity, the key to Grahame's freedom from clerkdrudgery.

Offered by William Reese Company.


The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

"Ethel has far more chance of happiness there, than re-enacting her own version of The Scarlet Letter in Downton." -- Mrs. Hughes on why the housemaid Ethel should leave the area.


Gunga Din by Rudyard Kipling

"Are you thinking of getting married, Dr. Clarkson? Because if you are, you're a better man than I am, Gunga Din." -- Isobel to Dr. Clarkson.


The Time Machine by H.G. Wells

"First electricity, now telephones. Sometimes I feel as if I were living in an H.G. Wells novel." -- The Dowager Countess declares she neither a fan of progress nor H.G. Wells.

The Time Machine First Issue

The Time Machine, Holt, 1895, first edition (first issue with the authors name misspelled as H.S. Wells on the title page), inner hinges starting, else a g/vg copy with somewhat different text than its later English counterpart. SIGNED by the author (just below the names of the previous owners?) on what appears to be a tipped in page. The author's first novel, a round trip to the year 802,701 and beyond. Most certainly a highspot of modern literature and needless to say, a cornerstone book in the building of a science fiction library. A very scarce book. (Offered by Fine Books Company)



You may also be interested in:

Theda Bara, Downton Abbey

Theda Bara, Signed Photpgraph, 8x20, 1917 

Bara is shown full length, in a layered lace long gown, standing by an ornate fireplace with mirror, likely from "Camille." Photograph by Witzel with photographer's white stamp in lower right corner. She inscribes in French and signs with fountain pen, "Tres sincerement, Theda Bara 1917." (Offered by Schulson Autographs)

In season two, Mr. Carson returns from inspecting Haxby Park, which Sir Richard is having modified for his new life with Mary, and Mrs. Hughes asks him how things are at Haxby he refers to "silent screen vamp" Theda Bara, an actress best remembered by film historians:

Mr. Carson: "Well, you should see some of the gadgets in the kitchens... and the bathrooms... Oh, goodness me, they're like something out of a film with Theda Bara."

Mrs. Hughes: "I'm surprised you know who Theda Bara is."

Mr. Carson: "I get about, Mrs Hughes, I get about."



If you like Downton Abbey, you may be interested in these items:


Art Deco Fashion Sketchbooks, Four in All, with an additional canvas (1915-1919)

by Ernest

Art Deco Animation

1915-1919. Containing a total of 80 original watercolors, 43 of which are pure fashion plates straight out of the wardrobe for "Downton Abbey". The fashions and aesthetic are very much of the teens and World War One era when what is known as Art Nouveau was evolving into the more angular, more abstract, more brittle, more self-consciously "Modern", of Art Deco. We can still see and enjoy the lavish and extravagant rococo flourishes of Art Nouveau while also finding traces of the streamlined looks associated with the twenties. The style of illustrations resembles that we find in "Gazette du Bon Ton", the highly sought-after French fashion magazine of the day, and we can see the possible influence of Aubrey Beardsley in the lines as well. Among the best illustrations there is a celebration of the exotic, the Oriental (a particularly Viennese version of Orientalism), the theatrical, and these aspects of the illustrations are redolent of such great illustrators as Dulac, Neilsen and their ilk. In the illustrations with theatrical allusions, conjured up are the glamourous poses by the opera divas of the day, when the likes of Geraldine Farrar or Maria Jeritza could be depended on for the flamboyant gestures that fed the enthusiasm of their huge base of fans. And then there is a small selection of other images, of ships, of an Australian dough boy, of an English cottage, that underscore the versatility of this Ernest. While the full identity of "Ernest" has yet to be established, the fineness and panache of the illustrations far exceeds that of a typical amateur, and it would seem probable that the sketches might have been done for or on behalf of a fashion house or retailer, either as drafts of ideas to be executed, renderings of what designers had already done, possibly to be copied, drafts of illustrations intended for catalogues or other promotional vehicles, or some combination. It would seem unlikely, in other words, that the drawings were merely done for the amusement of the artist. The illustrations are dated, with the earliest album also bearing the title, "Modes of 1915". The existence of this title offers indirect evidence of the artist's non-avocational purpose, in our view. 

Offered by White Fox Rare Books & Antiques.



Farwell present on going into service

London: Published by the Sunday-School Union, (n. d.). 1st printing [presumed]. Ca 1828. Period half-calf binding with marbled paper boards, with gilt stamped title lettering to spine. General binding wear. Period poi to front paste-down. Lacks ffep. Evidence of damping to frontispiece bifolium. Withal, an About VG - VG copy.. 72 pp. Frontispiece [dated 1828]. 12mo. 5-3/4" x 3-1/2"

Not found in the NUC, on OCLC, nor COPAC; an apparently unrecorded little work, counseling a young lady regarding her pending move to the world of 'service', "a useful and important station in society .... ". A number of 'rules to live by' follow, including "Fifthly- Always observe a respectful and oblinging behaviour towards those with whom you live, and endeavor to go about your work with a cheerful air, as a pleasure rather than a burden to you ..." Wonder if this volume served as a servant's primer, in a 19th C. Downton Abbey? 

Offered by Tavistock Books.


Game Book. A. McDonnell.

by A McDonnellMacDonnell

Game Book
1880-1917. Full Morocco. Very Good. Oblong, 21 by 30 cm. 92 numbered leaves with content, with log entries, more or less statistical, on all the versos, and pictures and/or original drawings, mostly mounted, on 58 rectos, with some additional loose material. (129 numbered leaves in all.) Several of the log pages have mounted photos obscuring the log, as it is clear that this game book was at some point re-purposed to be a more general album, with some emphasis on sports, including also fishing, foxhunting and sailing, but also there are two pages of photos from South Africa, with photos of native tribesmen, ostriches, a hut, Cecil Rhodes house, etc. 13 original works of art -- watercolored, pencil, pen and ink -- in addition to numerous painted fish hook and fly vignettes, these sometimes done directly onto the page. Most charming are the comical illustrations of anthropomorphic foxes. Sepia photos are of the country estates, their stately homes and rural settings of the hunts as well as the people involved -- the hosts and guests during these country weekends. Many, but by no means, all of the photos have captions helpfully identifying the participants or the locations. And the log proper provides the names of those participating in the shooting, and often what would now be regarded as obscenely large kills. Among the many aristocrats and wealthy in the photographs and/or logs are Lady Randolph Churchill (Jennie Churchill), Arthur Balfour, Lady Minto (Mary, the famous 4th Countess), Henry Lascelles, the 5th Earl of Harewood, the 5th Earl of Carnavon (of King Tut fame, as well as the owner of the castle used in Downton Abbey), Baron Rothschild, Lord de Grey, Lord Ashburton, Prince Murat, the Duke of Buccleuch, Prince Duleep de Singh, Lord Rosebery, and on and on. Country homes include Longleat, Greystoke Castle, the Hirsel, Highcliffe Castle, etc. Alexander McDonnell was a son of the 5th Earl of Antrim and a clerk in the House of Lords. Obviously he was very well connected, and surely very popular, among the upper echelons of English society back then. And we would note that many of the most illustriously titled have frequent entries here; what we have here is a window into a cohesive social network, it is our sense. Condition: morocco binding has moderate to heavy wear along edges, some scuffs on the boards and spine. The leaves can have a waviness, the result of the interaction of the mounted material upon the leaves. A few photos are loose. There is a little bit of a scrappy quality to the book, as befitting a log book that was partially turned into something much more, and this quality is part of its charm as well. 

Offered by White Fox Rare Books & Antiques.


Cabinet Portrait Gallery Reproduced from Original Photographs by W.&D. Downey. VOLUME ONE ONLY

Cabinet Portrait Gallery

London: Cassell and Company, 1894. Hardcover. Very Good. Hardcover. Volume one only of a five volume series. This volume contains 36 black and white portraits accompanied by a brief, adulatory biographical piece. Subjects are drawn from many spheres of British society and culture, with an emphasis on royalty, the aristocracy, the stage, and the arts. Among those included are the Duke and Duchess of Fife, Sarah Bernhardt, Archbishop of Canterbury, Price of Wales, Frederick Leighton, and Mrs. Humphrey Ward. This is an ex-library volume with the bookplate of the City of York Public Library affixed to the front pastedown. In what was probably an effort to discourage readers from taking photographs, the library applied an unobtrusive but visible embossed stamp to the margins of the photos, not affecting the portrait itself. Despite these factors the photographs are still interesting and attractive. Bound in brown cloth with floral borders to front boards and titles in gilt to front and to spines. Some bumping and rubbing, remains of small white stickers at foot of spine, but otherwise in quite good condition. Save for the small embossed stamps, the photographs are in very good condition. 96 pages plus photographs. 

Offered by Kelmscott Bookshop.


Young Brown or the Law of Inheritance

by Eustace Clare Grenville Murray 

Young Brown

London: Smith, Elder, 1874. First edition. xxiv, 300; vi, [ii], 304; viii, 281 pp. 3 vols. 12mo. Later white buckram , with brown leather labels. Some foxing, but overall, a very good copy. First edition. xxiv, 300; vi, [ii], 304; viii, 281 pp. 3 vols. 12mo. An "absolutely brilliant, bitter novel attacking the aristocracy" (Wolff); first published serially, it caused a scandal for its portrayal of known personalities and its suggestion of incest. Wolff 5057 (only the Tauchnitz edition); not in Sadleir.

Offered by James Cummins Bookseller.


Wind in the Willows

by Kenneth Grahame (Illustrated by Arthur Rackham)

Wind in the Willows, Arthur Rackham illustration

RACKHAM, ARTHUR. (RACKHAM,ARTHUR)illus. THE WIND IN THE WILLOWS by Kenneth Grahame. NY: LIMITED EDITIONS CLUB 1940. 4to, cloth backed patterned bds, fine (no slipcase)! 1st Rackham edition, first published in the United States and not published in England until 1950. LIMITED TO 2020 COPIES SIGNED BY BRUCE ROGERS (the designer). Illustrated by Rackham with 16 magnificent mounted color plates. A beautiful copy and a masterful edition of this classic.

Offered by Aleph-Bet Books.



by Archibald Marshall

London: Stanley Paul & Co., [1915].. Octavo, pp. [1-6] 7-286 + 24-page publisher's catalogue dated 1915 inserted at rear, original decorated green cloth, front panel stamped in black, spine panel stamped in gold, bottom edge untrimmed. First edition. "An Erewhonian satire: the poor are the aristocracy, the rich are ashamed of their wealth. " - Gerber, Utopian Fantasy, p. 146. "Wealth is despised and poverty esteemed. The wealthy go to school to learn how to get rid of their excess goods." - Lewis, Utopian Literature, p. 118. "Very funny and quite effective." - Barron (ed), Fantasy Literature 3-233. Bleiler, Science-Fiction: The Early Years 1445. Locke, A Spectrum of Fantasy, p. 151. Negley, Utopian Literature: A Bibliography 751. Sargent, British and American Utopian Literature, 1516-1985, p. 157. Teitler (2013) 826. Bleiler (1978), p. 134. Reginald 09703. A fine copy.

Offered by L.W. Currey.


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