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Tales to help ‘Downton Abbey’ fans muddle through another long, dry spell

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Posted: Friday, February 15, 2013 4:30 am

As we prepare for another long “Downton Abbey” dry spell (the final Season 3 episode airs Sunday), some of us will be looking for something Downton-ish to read.

I sampled four current novels, all of which name-checked “Downton Abbey” on their covers. Alas, no character came close to the Dowager Countess, and in general there wasn’t nearly enough below-stairs scheming, but each offered pleasures of their own.

‘The Passing Bells’

“The Passing Bells” by Phillip Rock (reissue of a 1978 novel, 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.”

Overall effectiveness as a “Downton” substitute: If you liked the World War I action in Season 2, there’s much along those lines here; less attention is paid to the at-home drama.

‘Habits of the House’

“Habits of the House” by Fay Weldon (St. Martin’s Press, $25.99 hardcover).

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.”

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’

“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.”

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’

“Park Lane” by Frances Osborne (Vintage, $15.99 paperback).

Setting: London, World War I era.

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

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.

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