The House at Riverton by Kate Morton Sunday, Oct 7 2012 

When teenager Grace Reeves comes to Riverton House as the new housemaid in 1914, she is reminded often of how fortunate she is to work for such an excellent family. What Grace does not know when she arrives at Riverton is how caught up she will become in the lives and dramas of the Hartford family, particularly sisters Hannah and Emmeline. Over the years, Grace remains devoted to Hannah, who trusts and confides in her. Then, in 1924, life for the family is shattered when a handsome young poet shoots himself at a Riverton House summer party, and only Hannah, Emmeline, and Grace witness the tragedy.

Decades later, Grace is in her late nineties and living out her final days in an English nursing home. She has remained largely silent about her life in service and that terrible summer night for decades, but when a young director making a film about the poet’s death contacts her, memories come rushing back. Finally, as she nears death, Grace confronts the secrets of the Hartford family that have haunted her for a lifetime.

The House at Riverton is almost as addictive as Downton Abbey and a must-read for fans of the acclaimed British series. While the characters are all fairly conventional for a novel like this, they are still interesting and have complicated relationships with one another. It’s a suspenseful read with more than a few surprises, and Kate Morton is subtle enough to plant certain ideas in the reader’s mind without making the book too predictable. The housing and fashion details of the early 20th century are rich and a lot of fun, but they never overwhelm the novel. The focus is very definitely on the characters and the events that shape them.

This is mostly a light, escapist read, and the drama and suspense are what will catch your interest and keep you reading. However, The House at Riverton does shed some light on issues that are explored more deeply in some other works about the era. World War I is featured prominently, with soldiers’ “shell shock” (better known today as post-traumatic stress disorder) coming to the fore through the character of Alfred, a footman at Riverton House. One thing that becomes very clear in the novel, much as it does in Downton Abbey, is how exacting the standards of those in service could be. Servants, especially those of high rank and considerable experience, were sometimes just as pretentious as their employers, if not more so. Disdainful comments about other servants and even an employer’s family and associates were quite common, albeit risky.

When it comes to life in service, though, the book has the most to say about the devotion many servants felt toward their employers and the challenges that loyalty presented. Grace is so loyal to Hannah that she feels a familial obligation toward her, and it becomes impossible for Grace to imagine leaving her position even when it is perhaps no longer the right place for her to be. Hannah’s troubles and secrets become Grace’s own, and they haunt the former housemaid for the rest of her life. While Grace is both thrilled and honored by Hannah’s trust in her, their closeness doesn’t change the reality of the huge class difference between them. Hannah does seem to care sincerely about Grace, but she also always has the upper hand in their relationship, and there is little Grace can do if her employer becomes angry and no longer wishes to trust or be kind to her.  This highlights something discussed in other books, TV shows, and movies about life in service: no matter how dedicated and close servants became to their employers, there was always going to be a distance between them. While it was understandable that servants would come to see employers as their own family (those who worked in service were prohibited, or at least strongly discouraged, from marrying and having children), such feelings could be very dangerous, both practically and emotionally. It’s hard not to wonder whether Grace could have saved herself much heartache and stress over the course of her life if she had been somewhat more detached from the Hartford sisters.

The House at Riverton offers a great escape into another era and offers plenty of insight into life upstairs and downstairs. If there’s a Downton Abbey shaped hole in your heart right now, this book will help fill it, though it may also make you all the more anxious for next season to hurry up and get to America already!

The American Heiress by Daisy Goodwin Tuesday, May 8 2012 

Downton Abbey fans who miss the hit period drama as much as I do will want to give Daisy Goodwin’s The American Heiress a try. This novel will at least partially fill the void until the Crawleys and their servants return in late 2012 or early 2013 (depending on which side of the Atlantic you reside).  A review blurb on the front cover of my paperback edition said as much, so needless to say, I was intrigued right away.

Originally published in the UK as My Last Duchess, The American Heiress takes place in the 1890s and tells the story of Cora Cash, heiress to a vast flour fortune. Cora is a beautiful, charming young woman who is the belle of New York and Newport, and she is widely believed to be the richest girl in America. However, Cora’s domineering mother wants a title for her daughter, and such a thing cannot be found in the United States, even for the wealthiest people. So, Cora travels to England to join the growing number of American heiresses seeking husbands among Britain’s titled aristocracy. Early on in her stay in England, Cora meets the handsome, mysterious Ivo Maltravers, Duke of Wareham. The two are soon engaged and married in a lavish New York wedding.

Of course, Cora’s marriage to Ivo is no fairy tale. Cora finds her new husband mercurial and difficult to understand, and it is hard not to wonder if he loves Cora or just her money. To make matters worse, Cora is irritated by her new mother-in-law and overwhelmed by the traditions and rules of England’s centuries-old aristocracy, where the servants can be as snooty as their employers. As more secrets and traps emerge, Cora often feels lonely and confused, sometimes even longing to return to America. If she is ever to be happy in her new life, she must become stronger than the shallow young woman she was when she first arrived in England.

The American Heiress is not a great literary work that offers in-depth analysis of the class systems of the late 19th century. However, it is a very entertaining novel, and I think it might offer a better understanding of women like the Countess of Grantham on Downton Abbey (whose name, incidentally, is also Cora) and what they went through early on in their marriages to British dukes and earls. As any good historical fiction book should be, it is full of vivid detail of the clothes, houses, and social lives of those lucky enough to be rich in the 1890s. I loved reading about the incredible gowns the women wore and the lavishness of the Newport parties. Those details alone make the book a worthwhile read if you’re just looking for something fun. I can only imagine how magnificent a film adaptation of this book would look.

The characters, though not particularly multidimensional, are well drawn and interesting enough to keep readers’ attention. While I would have liked to see some more significant development in Cora herself, I found her to be likable and was rooting for her as life in England got more and more frustrating. The most compelling character, I thought, was Cora’s African-American maid, Bertha Jackson, who faces challenges that neither Cora nor most of the other characters can truly understand. Bertha’s subplot is a bit sloppy at times, but Goodwin does a good job of conveying how isolated Bertha often feels; it’s clear that even Cora, who feels like a shut-out foreigner through much of the book, cannot fully grasp what life must be like for her maid. As for the Duke, Cora’s new husband, he is an intriguing but often irritating figure. While I pitied him for the difficulties he had faced in his life, I was also constantly wary of him and sometimes even wishing ill on him. I think Goodwin may have been trying to channel some of the romantic or Byronic heroes of British literature when she wrote this character, but Ivo is no Mr. Rochester, and he’s certainly no Mr. Darcy. Nevertheless, he is a very suitable central male character for a novel like this one.

I believe this book will prove a fun, escapist read for historical fiction fans. It takes place earlier than Downton Abbey and doesn’t have nearly as many characters, but anyone who enjoys the show’s beautiful sets and costumes and its captivating drama will find much of the same to appreciate in The American Heiress. Don’t be surprised if, like me, you start casting that hypothetical movie adaptation in your mind before you finish reading it.