I’ve been getting a lot of requests asking about a) what I am currently reading, and for b) more Downton Abbey-related content, so here is an historical books reading list that might be of interest…
Focusing largely on non-fiction – although I’ve included some fiction suggestions at the end of this post – I’m alternating between the Victorian-Gilded Age-Edwardian-World War historical biographies and books about society; in particular, the rise of American society/the fall of the British aristocracy and how they came to help each other out, ie. the newly rich Americans marrying off their daughters to poor-but-titled Brits.
As the British upper classes started to enjoy the US dollar cash injection from their newly acquired American heiress wives, and the repairs to their crumbling properties (those that were able to keep them), the world continued to change, with industrialists and working men coming into power with new ideas and methods.
Two world wars, the Jazz Age, and a Depression changed things completely, including the role of women, liberating them from corsets and treatment as chattels, to women of independence, with the ability to make choices for themselves.
Clearly, a lot of these ideas are in line with the thinking of Julian Fellowes and the story development of his phenomenally successful TV series, Downton Abbey, so I figure I’m not the only one spending more time looking into these significant periods in history.
BTW, I was interested to learn that Fellowes is now writing the next series about how the American heiress Cora Levinson came to be married to Lord Grantham, therefore saving the Crawley family from economic and social demise.
See also this Downton Abbey post for further reading (and viewing) suggestions, as well as:
Learn more about:
- the Gilded Age (1877-approx 1900)
- the Victorian era (1837-1901)
- the Edwardian era (1901-1910)
- World War I (1914-1918)
- the interwar period (1918-1939) including the Jazz Age and the Great Depression
- World War II (1939-1945)
The rise of America: The Gilded Age
One of the best books for an overview of the American-heiress-marries-titled-British-pauper is To Marry an English Lord by Gail MacColl and Carol McD. Wallace.
To be frank, I think the title is a bit silly (it sounds like a “how-to” guide), but it’s an excellent book, providing great insight into the late 19th century and early 20th century and how the social climbing nouveau riche American industrialists attempted to enter upper class British society by buying their way in, through marrying off their daughters.
Some of the most famous women during the Gilded Age to marry into British high society:
- Doña María Consuelo Iznaga y Clement, a Cuban-American socialite (and godmother of Consuelo Vanderbilt, below) who married the fortune-hunting George Montagu, the 8th Duke of Manchester
- Consuelo Vanderbilt of the famous Vanderbilt family was most unhappily married to Charles Spencer-Churchill, the 9th Duke of Marlborough, but later divorced on the grounds that she was forced into it. She went on to marry Jacques Balsan.
- The Jerome sisters, Clara, Jennie and Leonie, the most famous of whom was Jennie Jerome who also joined the prominent Spencer-Churchill family upon her marriage to Lord Randolph Churchill, and became the mother of Winston Churchill. She later married George Cornwallis-West and Montagu Phippen Porch.
The Vanderbilt family:
- The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt by T.J. Stiles
- Consuelo and Alva Vanderbilt: The Story of a Daughter and a Mother in the Gilded Age by Amanda Mackenzie Stuart
- The Glitter and the Gold by Consuelo Vanderbilt Balsan
- Fortune’s Children: The Fall of the House of Vanderbilt by Arthur T. Vanderbilt
- Lady on the Hill: How Biltmore Estate Became an American Icon by Howard E. Covington
- The Vanderbilts by Jerry E. Patterson
- The Vanderbilt Women: Dynasty of Wealth, Glamour and Tragedy
The Jerome-Churchill family:
- The Titled Americans: Three American Sisters and the British Aristocratic World into Which They Married by Elisabeth Kehoe
- American Jennie: The Remarkable Life of Lady Randolph Churchill by Anne Sebba
- Jennie: The Life of Lady Randolph Churchill by Ralph G. Martin
- Dark Lady: Winston Churchill’s Mother and Her World by Charles Higham
The Astor family:
- A Season of Splendor: The Court of Mrs. Astor in Gilded Age New York by Greg King
- When the Astors Owned New York: Blue Bloods and Grand Hotels in a Gilded Age by Justin Kaplan
- Archie and Amelie: Love and Madness in the Gilded Age by Donna M. Lucey
- Five Sisters: The Langhornes of Virginia by James Fox
- Nancy: The Story of Lady Astor by Adrian Fort
- The Last Mrs. Astor: A New York Story by Frances Kiernan
- Mrs. Astor Regrets: The Hidden Betrayals of a Family Beyond Reproach by Meryl Gordon
Similar books about this era:
- Gilded: How Newport Became America’s Richest Resort by Deborah Davis
- First Four Hundred : New York and the Gilded Age by Jerry E. Patterson
- The Big Spenders: The Epic Story of the Rich Rich, the Grandees of America and the Magnificoes, and How They Spent Their Fortunes by Lucius Beebe
- Wicked Newport: Sordid Stories from the City by the Sea by Larry Stanford
- The Richest Woman in America: Hetty Green in the Gilded Age by Janet Wallach
- Sisters of Fortune: The First American Heiresses to Take England by Storm by Jehanne Wake
- In a Gilded Cage: From Heiress to Duchess by Marian Fowler
The fall of British aristocracy
David Cannadine’s The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy is a great book, but rather heavy going in a scholarly way and not for the fainthearted. It really gets into the nitty gritty of what was going on politically, socially and economically, down to the detail of specific tax rates for specific people in specific counties.
I applaud Cannadine for his meticulous efforts, but I did skip quite a few pages when I realised that I could probably still absorb the gist of his argument. A must-read for academics, however!
Here are some examples:
- The Industrial Revolution (1760-1870) enabled industrious middle class and working class men to become successful in business, and some of them also became politicians, therefore redirecting the centre of power from traditional aristocratic landowners, making many of them largely redundant.
- With previously-high land rental incomes now greatly reduced due to land taxes and the growth of industry, death duties incredibly high, and the cost of running a stately home on even the most basic level ever increasing, over 1000 of Britain’s great houses were demolished.
- A huge amount of British men were killed during World War I but I wasn’t aware that around 20% of all titled young men and heirs to the great British houses were killed (eg. the Downton Abbey Matthew Crawleys of the day) and even more injured.
Books about the upper classes:
- Aristocrats: Power, Grace, and Decadence: Britain’s Great Ruling Classes from 1066 to the Present by Lawrence James
- Astride the Wall: A Memoir, 1913-1945 by Ursula Wyndham
- The Long Week-End: A Social History of Great Britain 1918-1939 by Robert Graves
- The Viceroy’s Daughters: The Lives of the Curzon Sisters by Anne de Courcy
- Unquiet Souls – The Indian Summer of the British Aristocracy by Angela Lambert
- Diana Cooper: The Biography of Lady Diana Cooper by Philip Ziegler
- Children of the Sun: A Narrative of Decadence in England After 1918 by Martin B. Green
- The Great Silence: Britain from the Shadow of the First World War to the Dawn of the Jazz Age by Juliet Nicolson
- Bright Young People: The Lost Generation of London’s Jazz Age by D. J. Taylor
- The Sisters: The Saga of the Mitford Family by Mary S. Lovell
- 1939: The Last Season of Peace by Angela Lambert
- 1939: The Last Season by Anne De Courcy
Books about life below stairs:
- Up and Down Stairs: The History of the Country House Servant by Jeremy Musson
- Rose: My Life in Service to Lady Astor by Rosina Harrison
- Below Stairs: The Classic Kitchen Maid’s Memoir That Inspired “Upstairs, Downstairs” and “Downton Abbey” by Margaret Powell
- Life Below Stairs: In the Victorian & Country House by Sîan Evans
- Servants’ Hall: A Real Life Upstairs, Downstairs Romance by Margaret Powell
- What the Butler Winked At: Being the Life and Adventures of Eric Horne, Butler by Eric Horne
Country houses of the United Kingdom:
- The English Country House: From the Archives of Country Life
- Life in the English Country House: A Social and Architectural History by Mark Girouard
- English Country House Interiors by Jeremy Musson
- Romantic English Homes by Robert O’Byrne
- Chatsworth: The House by Deborah Freeman-Mitford Cavendish, the Duchess of Devonshire
- Houses of the National Trust by Lydia Greeves
The Titanic disaster
Yes, there are millions of books about the Titanic, which sunk dramatically in April 1912, but it’s definitely worth including in this list because it was symbolic of the times, combining stories of wealth and greed, high society, the industrial age and the pursuit of power.
There’s some great insight to be found in the book Gilded Lives, Fatal Voyage: The Titanic’s First-Class Passengers and Their World by Hugh Brewster.
Note: There are also some an online, searchable databases of the passengers and crew on board the Titanic, which I consulted at the same time as reading the book. It’s good for learning what happened to the people mentioned in the book, if you’re interested in extra details.
Similar books in this area:
- Shadow of the Titanic: The Extraordinary Stories of Those Who Survived by Andrew Wilson
- Titanic in Photographs by Daniel Klistorner
- Voyagers of the Titanic: Passengers, Sailors, Shipbuilders, Aristocrats, and the Worlds They Came From by Richard Davenport-Hines
Fashion from the times
Here are some suggestions for lovers of historical fashion, including the late 19th and early 20th century:
- Victorian and Edwardian Fashion: A Photographic Survey by Alison Gernsheim
- Nineteenth Century Fashion in Detail by Lucy Johnston
- 100 Dresses: The Costume Institute – The Metropolitan Museum of Art by Harold Koda
- Fashion: The Definitive History of Costume and Style
- Fashioning Fashion: European Dress in Detail, 1700-1915 by Sharon Sadako Takeda
- Twentieth-Century Fashion in Detail by Valerie D. Mendes and Claire Wilcox
Works of fiction
The American Heiress/My Last Duchess by Daisy Goodwin is fictional but essentially combines the stories of several of the most famous women (especially Consuelo Vanderbilt) listed in To Marry an English Lord into one character, the American heiress, Cora Cash.
Whilst it’s more popular fiction than Pulitzer Prize-worthy, I thoroughly enjoyed being taken down this historical path, playing it as an audio book in my car and sometimes continuing to drive simply to get to the end of a chapter, even when I had arrived at my destination. I suspect there will be a film adaptation at some point.
Note: The book has two titles for UK/US audiences, but it’s the same book.
Similar books about British and American society during this era:
- The Buccaneers by Edith Wharton
- Daisy Miller by Henry James
- The Edwardians by Vita Sackville-West
- The Perfect Summer: England 1911, Just Before the Storm by Juliet Nicolson
- The Shooting Party: A Novel by Isabel Colegate
- Park Lane by Frances Osborne
- Decline and Fall by Evelyn Waugh
- Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh
- The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
- Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh
- The Chaperone by Laura Moriarty
- Rules of Civility by Amor Towles
I hope you find some of these suggestions useful. Do leave a comment about any other recommendations for a historical books reading list that you’d be happy to share with fellow Luscious Lifers.
You might also like:
More posts and photos here:
- Historical style: fashion, film, architecture photo galleries (Luscious website)
- Book to buy: “Rules of Civility: A Novel” by Amor Towles
- LUST-HAVE: Cafe Society: Socialites, Patrons, and Artists 1920-1960 by Thierry Coudert (Luscious website)
- Historical glamour (Pinterest board)
- Historical fashion, incl Edwardian, Flapper fashion and more (Pinterest board)
- Downton Abbey (Pinterest board)