Written by Jacky Hyams
Published by John Blake Publishers
Review by Meredith Allard
As I’m continuing my quest of reading books inspired by Downton Abbey, I found my way to The Real Life Downton Abbey by Jacky Hyams. The Real Life Downton Abbey is a good summary of what life was like for the British upper and lower classes during the time of the beloved television show (early 20th century), and, as you might expect in a book with this title, Hyams uses Downton Abbey as a springboard, often referencing the show as she illustrates the lifestyle at the time. She talks about the Titanic, for example, and shares a menu of an eleven-course meal that would have been prepared by the French kitchen staff. Before the ship went down, of course.
The Real Life Downton Abbey is a concise summary of the lifestyle surrounding the television show, but having already read Up and Down Stairs by Jeremy Musson, along with several other books about the era, I felt The Real Life Downton Abbey was a lot of retelling of what I already knew. I can’t say I learned anything from this book, though I did enjoy Hyams’ easy, conversational tone as she talked about the extravagant upper classes and the poverty of the servants. For example, even butlers made only 50-100 pounds per year for their trouble, and the hardest working servants, the youngest ones who did the most labor-intensive jobs, often the scullery maids, made as little as ten pounds per year.
American readers may be put off by Hyams’ use of Britishisms, but she’s British so she can get away with it. Since I watch a lot of British television and read a lot of British literature, I feel comfortable saying I speak conversational British English and I wasn’t bothered by the British words. Context clues work very well when translating from British English to American English, and if you’re reading the book on a Kindle or other e-reading device you simply have to press on the word and the definition pops up. I found the definition for “Toff” to be as follows: a stylishly dressed, fashionable person; part of the upper classes.
For Downton Abbey fans who are beginning their journey into reading about the era, then The Real Life Downton Abbey, with its general overview, is a good place to start. If you’ve already read about the class distinctions in the early 20th century and have a firm grasp on the subject, then you may not get as much out of the book.
Meredith Allard is the Executive Editor of The Copperfield Review.