Many of Book Jam readers and many of our friends are suffering from Downton Abbey withdrawal pains. While unfortunately we can’t write and film any new installments for you, what we can do is to suggest Edwardian tales to tide people over until the cast of this popular BBC series returns. We have looked high and low and started many books that were well… just bad. Then, we thought of a few gems. Ta Ta and Tally ho! Keep Calm and Carry On. Or perhaps in this instance we should say Keep Calm and Read On! (And, yes historians among you, some of the tales we selected do not cleanly fit in the definition of Edwardian - ”covering the reign of King Edward the VII, 1901 to 1910″ - but we hope you will allow us some poetic license, so to speak.)
The Lost Garden by Helen Humphreys (2002) – My search for a good British Edwardian novel meant the other Lisa of this blog and our town’s superb children’s librarian both put this book in my hands. While I sometimes disagree with their individual recommendations, when they both say “you must read this book”, I trust that wholeheartedly. And they were right – I love this book. You would think authors would have run out of ways to tell WWI and WWII stories by now; and then, a book like this proves you wrong. Its slimness masks profound musings on writing, love and life. Pick it up and enjoy your time in the gardens of a British estate just as it has been repurposed as a garden for the war effort. You will meet the young British women/girls sent there to tend the estate, and a group of Canadians soldiers truly just hanging around waiting to be sent to battle. ~ Lisa Christie
Now, a few more words about The Lost Garden from Lisa Cadow, as she has more to say: Humphrey’s other job as a poet really shows in this small masterpiece about World War II. For those going through Downton Abbey withdrawal, this might be the perfect book for you. It’s set at an English country estate that has been given over to the war effort. And, its main character, horticulturist Gwen, is there to help the Women’s Land Army plant potatoes for the people of England. Her time there becomes about much more than potatoes, and the reader is led to hidden gardens, into the world of the great British manor in its heyday, through an encyclopedia of roses, and on a journey of self-discovery.
The House at Tyneford by Natasha Solomons (2011). I read this book several years back but still remember the strong impressions it left me of life in an English Manor House on the eve of World War II. The hustle and bustle of preparing for weekend guests, silver polishing, and the daily setting of the table is really brought to life, as are the politics and complexity of the relationships, both “upstairs and downstairs”, in the house. The House at Tyneford also examines the effect back-to-back world wars had on both the British economy and psyche. This is the story of nineteen year old Elise Landau who is forced to leave Vienna and her beloved family to escape the persecution of Jews at the outset of the second World War. Though she is educated and her parents are well-to-do, she has no other choice but to relocate as a parlor maid in the English countryside. Thus begins a tale of change, challenge, heartbreak as the reader watches Elise tap into inner strengths and resiliency she never knew she had. A wonderful read. Note: We reviewed another one of Solomon’s excellent books on the Book Jam, Mr. Rosenblum Dreams in English which also examines British class issues but many decades later. ~Lisa Cadow
The Maisie Dobbs series by Jacqueline Winspear (2003 to 2012) – We have posted about Maisie before And, while we both feel the last book was a bit overwrought, overall this series is satisfying and delivers unique looks at WWI England. The main character, Maisie is a former front line nurse attempting to support herself as an unmarried woman after the war ends. As a former “downstairs” maid to a wealthy family she is determined not to return to serving a house and finds unique work as a detective of sorts. To find our earlier reviews of Ms. Winspear’s work, put “Maisie Dobbs” in the search block of The Book Jam Blog (located in the upper right hand side). ~ Lisa Cadow and Lisa Christie