Even better than the real thing!

Yes, Downton’s back!  

Autumn’s in the air and the upstairs-downstairs shenanigans of England’s nicest turn of the century toffs will warm us as the nights draw in in Blighty. (For those of you living in a cave or not in Blighty this is the phenomenon that is ITV period drama Downton Abbey, see below).


A few posts ago I give my top tips for alternative English Lit classics for freshers (or freshmen if you’re from across the pond). You know, a guide to swapping those worthy tomes like Jane Eyre for more ‘user friendly’ and ‘fun classics’.  But with the return of Downtown it occurred to me that, if you’re not a student, then faux Victoriana/period drama can be even better than the real thing. Downton’s not based on an actual novel and is possibly all the better for it because the producers have free rein to introduce intrigues, cliff-hangers and lovely frocks without all that boring moralising and (too much) social commentary.

You can even have some laughs with recently penned period dramas. Look at Hunderby which aired on Sky Atlantic this month – a mental pastiche cum mash-up of Daphne DuMaurier’s Rebecca, Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre and Monty Python.

Though clearly a ‘serious’ period drama Downton, and the ‘modern’ period novels, give more bang for your buck, so to speak (literally in the case of the saucy bits you can include that Bronte and Dickens would never have got away with).

But there is a fine line between drama and unintentional hokey Hunderby-ness. BBC and ITV have had a go at adapting some of the most fabulous faux Victorian potboilers in recent years, with varying degrees of success.

Take Sarah Water’s Fingersmith – Lawks governor, it’s a proper Victorian romp, and no mistake. More convoluted than a Christopher Nolan movie (remember Inception, or Memento?) it has whores, pickpockets, crones, foundlings, an asylum, but you’ll still never guess what it’s all about until the big reveal – then you’ll read it again. The BBC TV version ended up far more implausible and less fun though (and poor Sarah Waters’ other Victorian lesbian romp Tipping the Velvet was so badly parodied by comedy pair French and Saunders as to be un-rewatchable.)

But BBC got it right with Michel Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White last year, with the lovely Romola Garai as Sugar, the tart with a heart and a head for business. The book is atmospheric, voyeuristic fun. It’s also completely filthy, in both getting to look at lady of ill repute’s private parts and in it’s excruciating detail of the Victorian reality of the world’s oldest profession.

Both these are highly recommended and don’t be put off by the fact they’re as big as bricks – that just adds to the classic feel!

But if you’ve already read/seen these two fantastic faux classics then try these 1800s homages:


The American Boy – Andrew Taylor. Edgar Allan Poe? As a child? In Stoke Newington?  Really? Possibly…Fact and fiction intertwine with family intrigue at the big house and dark deeds afoot in the formal gardens.

The Great Stink – Clare Clarke. Surprisingly enjoyable story about the London summer when the smell of the sewers caused ladies to faint and drove the MPs from parliament – oh with the added stench of murder and corruption.

Star of the Sea – Joseph O Connor. There’s famine in Ireland, the aristocracy are suitably underwhelmed as they journey to New York on the titular boat with starving refugees beneath their feet. But there’s a murderer on board and the sea and the ship are about to give up their secrets! Bonus – Charles Dickens has a cameo appearance.

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell – Susanna Clarke. It’s early 19th century England but not quite as we know it. The Napoleonic wars are in full swing and top hats and good manners are all in place. But magical thistle-down-haired men are up to no good in mirrors and two super enchanters are showing off by dabbling in the dark arts – England expects…trouble.

With any of these six ‘five star’ novels you’re ready for a cracking ‘pretend classic’ night in.

So close the curtains, stoke the fire (if you don’t have one sit really close to the radiator) and turn to chapter one. After Downton’s finished, of course!










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4 responses to “Even better than the real thing!

  1. Agreed about The Crimson Petal – it was brilliant. Umm… better than the novel, ( oops). What about Tobias Hill: Love of Stones? veers between Victorian and modern, beautifully written. Also, I’m enjoying Andrew Miller: Pure, set in the 18th century.

  2. I read Pure on holiday and really enjoyed it – surprisingly so for a novel about overflowing cemeteries! Very atmospheric. Will definitely try Tobias Hill – I always go for a trusted recommendation! 🙂

  3. Pingback: Legenda 45: Stuff worth reading « Me + Richard Armitage

  4. The Crimson Petal and the White…wow, that show was amazing. I must watch it again. I keep looking to buy the book, but only remember when I have no money! Oops.

    As for Downton…a show that I keep meaning to watch and always forget. I’ll have to look it up and watch from the start!

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