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Tart tales for the ‘Downton’ dry spell

You won’t find character as delightfully acerbic as “DowntAbbey’s” Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith) but fans show will find some stories

You won’t find a character as delightfully acerbic as “Downton Abbey’s” Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith), but fans of the show will find some stories to enjoy in several recent book releases.

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Updated: March 18, 2013 6:30AM



As fans prepare for another long “Downton Abbey” dry spell (the final season three episode airs Feb. 17), some of us will be looking for something Downton-ish to read. Three current novels name-check “Downton Abbey” on their covers. Alas, no character comes close to the Dowager Countess, and in general there isn’t nearly enough below-stairs scheming, but each offers pleasures nonetheless.

‘THE PASSING BELLS’ (reissue of a 1978 novel)

By Phillip Rock

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 two, 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, $25.99

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” link: On the back cover, a complimentary blurb from “Downton Abbey” 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.

Scripps Howa rdNews Service



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