Downton Abbey, the critically acclaimed British costume drama, follows the lives of the aristocratic Crawley family and their servants in early 20th century England. This world of strictly divided social classes holds a fascination for many of us; despite the rules which keep the classes apart, there's always more to be found beneath the surface. If you're a fan of the show, waiting for the next installment to be broadcast in September 2012, maybe some of these great reads will help the time pass:
What differentiates a true lady from a common woman? Is it blood, environment, education or simply hauteur? The late, prolific Cookson deftly explores these questions in this dizzying upstairs-downstairs "romance of adversity" set in rural Edwardian England. Annabella Lagrange is a lovely 17-year-old lady-to-be... or not to be, whose aristocratic childhood comes to a crashing halt when her womanizing papa, who has just bankrupted his wife Rosina's glass factory, reveals that Annabella is actually the daughter of a local whorehouse madam. Manuel Mendoza, a predictably dark and handsome self-made workman, helps Annabella begin a new, humble life as a farmhouse maid with an invented past. Cookson liberally heaps mental anguish and cruel twists of fate upon her heroine as Annabella tentatively navigates "life as lived by the majority of people." Over the course of a trying year, Annabella keeps her ladylike dignity-and virginity-as she entangles herself in the bonds of love. Is it truly possible for "the upper class to come down and the working class to come up and meet in the middle" in the realms of love and business? Despite some heavy-handed foreshadowing and spell-breaking asides about the social limitations of the Edwardian era, Cookson proves herself a seasoned storyteller, whose plentiful list of titles keeps historical women's fiction fans in the hardcover aisle years after the author's death.
Corona's second historical novel (after Penelope's Daughter) offers an excellent introduction to Emilie du Chatelet (1706-49), whose wealth could still not overcome the discrimination she faced as a female intellectual in 18th-century France. A talented mathematician, she glimpsed the relationship between energy and matter two centuries before Einstein, and her translation of Newton's Principia Mathematica remains the standard French version. Emilie died at age 42 after bearing a daughter, who died 18 months later. Drawing from these historical facts, Corona has the daughter, Lili, survive and taken in by a kindly and thoughtful family that encourages her to use her mind. As Lily tries to find her place in the glittering and decadent prerevolutionary France, she gradually learns about her brilliant and notorious mother and eventually meets her mother's former lover, Voltaire, now a very old man tending his garden. Although readers are aware times are darkening, the depictions of intellectual salons and the passionate pursuit of the sciences lighten the book. Verdict Corona's marvelous scenes of the French Enlightenment in progress will appeal to readers who long for times when anyone of any intellectual claim could dabble in new ideas.
Flirting with Destiny is a First World War saga from a much-loved author. Summer, 1914. As the storm clouds gather over Europe, four privileged young women prepare to leave school and embark on adult life. But for Louise, Imogen, Cora and Miranda, the outbreak of war will change everything. Instead of foreign holidays and glamorous parties, leading to marriage and babies, they must learn to adjust to a new and very different world. The difficult years ahead test their characters to the full, and strain their once-strong friendship.
Elizabeth and Amber are the daughters of London fashion dynasty magnate William Melville and his wife; Caitlyn, who grew up in Ireland, is Meville's daughter by another woman. She hasn't even known who her father is until her mother dies when she is 15 and she joins the Melville family in London. Hyland's sweeping debut follows the three sisters from privileged but rocky adolescence to the beginnings of their careers and relationships. Elizabeth has her eye on running the business, Caitlyn goes to Paris to learn design, and Amber becomes a model. Halfway through the novel, Hyland introduces a suspense element that lends complexity to the role of the family business in the story line, but she also throws in an unsavory plot twist. Verdict: lots of sex, fashion, and drama add glitter to this family saga, which will appeal to fans of Jackie Collins, Judith Krantz, and Judith Michael.