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3 nineteenth century novels in which ‘Downton Abbey’ may have stolen a page

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One doesn’t need a Ph.D. in English to get the sense that, at times, "Downton Abbey" feels just a tad familiar. The novel of manners, many avid readers’ (especially of the female variety) favorite kind of book, likely inspired the British PBS television series.

The novel of manners has been a popular literary genre since the nineteenth century, calling attention to proper etiquette and exploring the harshness of social expectations. In "Downtown Abbey," nobody is saved from ridicule for behaving poorly or making missteps when it comes to manners—not the Crawley’s, bourgeoisie, or servants. Heaven forbid a footman’s uniform rips at the seam, an aristocrat marries her chauffeur, or Her Ladyship visits the servants’ quarters unannounced (or at all, says Miss O’Brien). The horror.

Bookworms who think, “I have seen this before,” are probably drawing comparisons between Julian Fellowes’s hit show and books such as Jane Austin’s "Pride and Prejudice," William Makepeace Thackeray’s "Vanity Fair," and George Eliot’s "Middlemarch." Certain Edith Wharton and Charlotte Bronte novels (among other writers) come to mind, too.

Austin’s "Pride and Prejudice" might have served as a predecessor for the tongue-in-cheek tone of "Downtown Abbey"—where the boundaries between classes and sexes are all but exaggerated. The show appears committed to testing the social conventions deemed “proper”— masters sleep with servants; young women pursue improper love matches; and the aristocracy comment harshly on the behavior of, well, everybody. If nothing else, Violet is a personification of the mimicry. “What is a weekend?” she asks middle class lawyer Matthew Crawley, reminding him she has inherited her money and has never had to work; thus, everyday is her weekend.

If the surname Crawley sparks recognition, that’s because you read it in Thackeray’s "Vanity Fair." Like "Downtown Abbey," the novel is filled with imprudent relationships and desperate attempts to marry into the family for that sweet, sweet Crawley money. In the television show, the house—and the money tied up in it—is so sought after it might as well be a character; granting the show many Becky Sharps of its own.

Eliot’s "Middlemarch" may have influenced the series' emphasis on gossip and communication. Eliot used gossip as a literary motif, drawing attention to the ways in which characters communicate and get caught in a web as a result. This theme is ever so present in "Downton Abbey," too. One can’t ignore the addition of the telephone that sent Mr. Carson reeling, or the loose-lipped servants who always seem capable of damaging someone’s reputation.

Gender politics are important in both art forms, too. In the nineteenth century, emphasis was given to what little rights a woman had and how she could be made or broken due to her fortune (or lack their of). Taking place over a century after "Pride and Prejudice" was published, "Downton Abbey" sets the stage for those rules to be rewritten. The younger cast of characters—Lady Mary, Lady Edith, and Lady Sybil—begins to break free from the patriarchal society, defying the social norms, making their own decisions.

The crumbling patriarchal wall and disregard of the old customs are what makes "Downton Abbey" so charming, if not that the show captures the essence of the very literary genre so many readers love.

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