If you want to learn about wealthy Americans whose money props up aging British estates:
Edith Wharton’s unfinished The Buccaneers is the ultimate novel about the kind of convenient marriage that fueled the world of Downton Abbey: an American heiress and an impoverished British aristocrat. In The Buccaneers, which was made into one of the best miniseries of all time, four young, nouveau-riche American girls travel to the UK to capture marriageable lords and (this being Wharton) a lot more drama, pathos and pure misery than even Julian Fellowes can conjure. And it all comes from her characters’ flaws rather than freak accidents and diseases.
If you want a family with very different daughters who need to be married off:
Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, and the many wonderful film and TV adaptations thereof, follow a family that, like the Crawleys, begins with three daughters, two of whom are in need of a good match. While Elinor and Marianne love each other a bit more unreservedly than Edith and Mary, they — and their love trajectories — are as different as night and day.
If you miss charmingly spoiled heiresses:
Literature loves a well-meaning, spoiled heiress. The titular meddlesome, naive heroine of Jane Austen’s Emma and Henry James’ wide-eyed Isabella Archer in The Portrait of a Lady are two of the greatest examples of this type. Like the Crawley girls, they both think they know a lot more about the world, and how to manipulate it, than they actually do.
If you want a heroine even colder and more calculating than Mary Crawley:
Henry James wrote them mean, if not lean. The Wings of the Dove‘s Kate Croy, immortalized by Helena Bonham Carter in the gorgeous 1997 film adaptation, would make Mary Crawley shiver in her boots. Her scheme? Let her impoverished secret fiancée marry her terminally ill best friend, just so he can inherit her wealth and clear the way for their marriage.
If you crave catty sibling rivalry:
Wholesome Molly Gibson and her beautiful, troubled, seductive stepsister Cynthia are the protagonists of Wives and Daughters, Elizabeth Gaskell’s unfinished tour de force — and the much-beloved BBC miniseries. Their relationship to each other, and to the eligible men in town, has all the nuance that Edith and Mary lack. But do they form two-thirds of a love triangle anyway? Of course they do.
If you want to follow the story of someone with even worse luck than poor Edith Crawley or Anna Bates:
Think things were too tragic for Anna, Mary’s put-upon ladies’ maid who didn’t spend a day at Downtown without worrying about herself or someone she loved being sent to the gallows? Try following Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles, who can’t avoid that fate. (There are multiple Tess adaptations to view, each with its charms.)
Alternatively, think Edith Crawley had it too good, with all her fleeing suitors and undermining sisters? Spend some time with Edith Wharton’s naive, doomed Lily Bart in The House of Mirth, played perfectly by Gillian Anderson in the Terrence Davies film. She’s like Edith, except with factory work and death instead of a happy ending.
For understanding what Tom Branson’s relatives were up to back in Ireland:
Watch Liam Neeson play a violent, charismatic revolutionary in Neil Jordan’s incredible Michael Collins (or read about the Irish gentry from the final season, before their estate is burned down by the IRA, in Elizabeth Bowen’s The Last September).
If you never recovered from Sybil’s death and yearn for a clash between the old aristocracy and new, radical ideas:
E.M. Forster’s A Room With a View and its famous Merchant-Ivory film adaptation introduce us to Lucy Honeychurch, a higher-born type with eccentric leanings like Sybil Crawley, captivated by a man from the working class. Bonus for Dowager Countess stans: the film has the benefit of featuring a younger Maggie Smith and Judi Dench as eccentrics, playing off each other to great effect.
If you loved finding out about how “the other half lived” in Britain:
The wildly popular TV series Call the Midwife doesn’t even bother with valets and ladies’ maids; it’s all about the travails of London’s working poor and the women who heroically help them with their (mostly baby-related) health concerns.
If you just want eye candy and soapy British goodness:
Grantchester and Poldark. Grantchester is the mystery series about a tormented vicar with a penchant for jazz, a melancholy self-destructive streak, a bad case of PTSD, and a complex love life. Poldark is about a tormented mine owner with a penchant for bar-fighting, a melancholy self-destructive streak, proletarian leanings, and a complex love life. They are played, respectively, by James Norton and Aidan Turner. You’re welcome.
For those who need delightfully, unabashedly bitchy dowagers:
The Dowager Countess has a sharp way with words but a soft streak and a sense of family love that often trumps her snobbish ways. Not so Pride and Prejudice‘s acid-tongued Lady Catherine De Bourgh, who shows no mercy to those she sees as interlopers. Check out the 1995 miniseries or 2005 film.
For viewers who cannot get enough of repressed servants:
Much of the Mr. Carson/ Mrs. Hughes relationship in Downton Abbey feels like a weak imitation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s masterpiece The Remains of the Day, the film adaptation of which features the brilliant Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson (thank you once more, Merchant Ivory). This overly loyal butler, Mr. Stevens, barely emotes, but hints as to his real emotions run beneath the surface in classic Ishiguro fashion. Stevens makes Mr. Carson look like a disloyal upstart who always has the feels.