Vintage Fiction for Your Downton Fix

Major publishers were quick to cash in on the rousing success of Downton Abbey by suggesting books they felt would appeal to fans of the show. Not surprisingly, they and the multitude of comments from others, chimed in to suggest tons of non-fiction, literary fiction, and classic fiction of the Edwardian era and WWI. Longtime readers of this blog are familiar with Redeeming Qualities, a review blog of long-forgotten popular fiction, and these mainstream-curated lists inspired Melody and I to create our own list of fiction that the Crawley family and friends, and perhaps the servants, would have read during their leisure time. The following books are organized by theme and most are titles we’ve both enjoyed, and we hope you all will enjoy them as well!

Typist Heroines

Evangeline: When second housemaid Gwen Dawson decided to become a typist, she joined a long line of heroines (both real and literary) who cast aside Victorian notions of propriety to earn a decent living. The “Woman Question,” — or, what to do with “surplus” women who went against 19th century mores praising wifedom and motherhood as the sole purpose of a woman’s life and chose not to marry — dominated post-Industrial Revolution England.

Florence Nightingale broke barriers for middle-class women in the nursing profession in the 1850s, but proponents of higher education for women in the 1870s soon produced a generation of intelligent and college-educated middle- and upper-class women eager to use their education. The 1870 Education Act improved the lot of working- and lower-class women, and mandated compulsory schooling, which is how a farmer’s daughter like Gwen would have been able to learn the three Rs, and which gave her dreams beyond domestic service or even life in a factory. By the 1880s, women began to rapidly replace men in entry-level office positions, and by the Edwardian era, the image of a typist or secretary was fixed as a young woman in her white shirtwaist and tailor-made.

While it was not overtly articulated in the first season, Gwen’s desire to be a typist was a bit revolutionary — it was reasonable for a young lady from a middle-class family — perhaps the daughter of a clerk or a doctor — to seek a position in an office, but a farmer’s daughter and housemaid? This was jumping from the labouring class to the professional (lower-middle) class in one swoop! — one reason why many of the ruling elite were against universal education.

Next thing you know, Gwen could marry some nice accountant or bank clerk and set up house in a nice London suburb, where her children could attend school and perhaps a London university. Her grandchildren could move up the ladder even further, and one day her descendants could meet the Crawley family in some social capacity! Violet would be sure to have a heart attack over that. But I digress. Here are a few books featuring typist heroines, which go a long way to show how this new workforce influenced society and fiction.

The Career of Katherine Bush by Elinor Glyn (1916)Read
A self made woman’s rise from a stenographer in a money lender’s office to a conspicuous round in the social ladder. How she learns from the mistakes she makes and how one’s actions come back to confront one make the story a life transcript. It is a constructive tale of how a woman made good in English society and her love story is evidently an engrossing one, and furthermore it is a perfectly proper story with a serious purpose. [Bookseller, vol. 45] Melody: It’s always fun to see a heroine who is allowed to be smart and ambitious and doesn’t get punished for it — especially since she also doesn’t get punished for having pre-marital sex. Katherine’s efforts to better herself are a delight, and Glyn’s sharply observed social commentary is as good here as it is anywhere. I recommend this one pretty unequivocally.

Miss Cayley’s Adventures by Grant Allen (1899) – Read
Mr Allen has chosen for the theme of his new novel the old plot of an energetic youth who starts blithely forth with a good a stout heart and an empty pocket to win riches and a beautiful wife. The youth in this case, however, is a Girton girl, and the old “properties” become new with the change of the character from a hero to a heroine. Miss Cayley’s adventures are many. There is a jewel robbery; a missing letter; adventures in the desert and on the sea; a rescue of the hero by the heroine. As a lady’s companion, the heroine wins the heart of a languid and handsome young attaché, but resolves not to marry him as, while he has expectations of coming into a large fortune, she is dependent upon her own exertions for a livelihood. Through the machinations of the attaché’s cousin, he is accused of forgery, and his prospective fortune is forfeited. Miss Cayley has then opportunity of proving her love and, after marrying him, she clears his character of the charge against him. The story is written in a bright and vivacious manner in Mr Allen’s best style. [The Critic, vol. 31] Melody: Miss Cayley spends a chapter as a typist, but mostly she spends the book trying out a lot of the available careers for women at the time — and being better than everyone else at all of them, and much less irritating than you’d think that would imply.

The Type-writer Girl by Grant Allen writing as Olive Pratt Rayner (1897)Read
The type-writer girl tells her own story. She is a well-educated young woman, of good parentage, obliged to earn her own living. Her stock-in-trade consists of a bicycle and a type-writing machine, and she is looking for a situation when the story opens. She obtains a place at a third-rate solicitor’s office, but stays there only three days, going off to join a band of impossible anarchists near Horsham. But there she stops only a week, returning to her London lodgings and penury a wiser and a sadder woman. She is then lucky enough to be engaged as type-writer and private secretary to Mr. Blank, a publisher, a handsome young man. [The Publishers’ circular and booksellers’ record of British and foreign literature v67] Evangeline: Juliet narrates the book in a sardonic and exuberant voice as she embodies pretty much every stereotype late Victorians had of “New Women”–bloomers, bicycles, cigarettes, sun-burnt skin from not wearing hats, and “masculine” traits–but Allen’s satire is gentle and affectionate. Towards the end of the book the story lifts beyond the stereotype and the author made an interesting choice for the ending.

A Girl of Ideas by Annie Flint (1903)
Modern making of books, of which there is no more end than ever, receives a blow from subtle, delicately aimed sarcasm in this breezy volume. The heroine,whose experience is vastly interesting, is disappointed in — no, not at all — there’s one girl who isn’t. It was “writing,” not “love.” She wrote a number of manuscripts — gems born to blush unseen. However, publishers rejected them. Her novel shared the same fate. She had an idea. She set up in business as a retailer of ideas to writers born without. It worked beautifully. So did she. The outcome of it all was a syndicate of writers to keep the market supplied with novels, speakers with speeches and preachers with suitable soul stirring sermons, altered to fit while you wait. The book is a sparkling, bright entertainer from beginning to end and Annie Flint is clever. [The Business woman’s magazine, vol. 1]

Servant Romances

Evangeline: It seems that we’ve always wanted to read fiction about people a little higher than us on the social scale, so books featuring servant heroines or heroes are rather thin on the ground (even today). Nevertheless, we do have the star-crossed romance of Anna and Bates to keep us enthralled, and here are a few stories that manage to combine our eternal love of high society romance with a servant protagonist.

Miss Million’s Maid by Bertha Ruck (1915) – Read
Entertaining story of a little London slavey who suddenly falls heir to great wealth. She engages her impoverished young mistress as her maid, who advises her well both as to matters of dress and her heart. The maid, incidentally, has many adventures and a romance of her own. [The Booklist v14] Melody: This is a fun romp, and not much more, but that’s not a bad thing.

Barbara, Lady’s Maid and Peeress by Mrs. Alexander (1898)Read
Those who want to describe a thorough-going good novel will instance Mrs. Alexander’s. Her tales never flag, — never. She has a sense of proportion and a sense of humor which keep her fiction fresh and new. The last story from her pen is Barbara: Lady’s Maid and Peeress. It is full of characteristic touches, peopled with English provincials, noble and untitled, animated by an uncommon plot, and altogether interesting. The story deals with the career of a young middle-class girl in London, who tires of mantua-making and goes out to a desolate castle in the north as lady’s maid. When the mistress of this dies, and her will is revealed, there is a domestic explosion which places the poor maid above her betters. It is all worked out with truth to character and perfect charm of narration, and it will keep all of Mrs. Alexander’s old, while making her scores of new, friends. [McBride’s Magazine v60]

Country House Parties

Evangeline: Prior to the Victorian and Edwardian eras, country house parties were common (since travel was slow and far, why not stay a while?), but once the Prince of Wales (later Edward VII) expected his set to entertain him (lavishly), the house party became an indelible fixture on the social calendar. There’s something about gathering a group of people under one roof that seems to attract scandal, gossip, and games, and the following books explore all of these–and more.

The Visits of Elizabeth by Elinor Glyn (1900)Read
Elizabeth is a real creation — a delightfully innocent debutante in some ways, the most appalling of enfants terribles in others, but always and everywhere a charming and healthy specimen of the best type of English girlhood. She takes us, in a series of letters to her mother, through successive visits to English and French country houses, holding the scales with exemplary impartiality when she weighs the merits of the two nations and introducing us to a great variety of hostesses and house parties with constant truthfulness and corresponding misconceptions. Altogether a difficult piece of work excellently well performed — hardly to be recommended virginibus puerisque, but wholesome and delectable reading nevertheless. [The Saturday review of politics, literature, science and art, vol. 90] Melody: Elinor Glyn writes in pretty much the exact same milieu as that in which Downton Abbey takes place, and never more than in this, her first novel and one of her best. This is a must-read for sure.

The Country House by John Galsworthy (1907) – Read
It concerns only the members of a small country family, with a few neighbors and visitors, only a few episodes of rather commonplace character. The only thing approaching the dramatic is the son and heir’s entanglement with the wife of a drunken reprobate, who has, nevertheless, sufficient self-respect to institute divorce proceedings when he learns of the intrigue, and decency enough to withdraw them when he realizes that the prosecution of his case would hurt other people besides the guilty pair. This same son and heir also goes in for horse-racing, and gets deep into debt as a consequence. He makes a pretty poor hero; in fact, the story has neither hero nor heroine in the proper sense, and only a couple of characters with whom we have any sympathy whatever. Yet it is, as we have already suggested, an extremely interesting story, made so by the extraordinary precision of its characterization and literary phrasing. Few novelists are as successful as Mr. Galsworthy in adapting their means to their purposes, with the result, as in the present instance, of giving vivid reality to a group of commonplace people, and of reproducing the very atmosphere of the scenes in which they move. [Current Literature v43]

The Edwardians by Vita Sackville-West (1930)
Evangeline: This is still in print, so it should be easy to find. Set mostly at a country house in Kent (Chevron, modeled after Vita’s beloved childhood home Knole), this is a Wharton-esque critique of Edwardian society told through the eyes of the jaded young Duke of Chevron, the sardonic explorer Leonard Anquetil, and Teresa Spedding, a middle class doctor’s wife whose bedazzlement by the aristocracy nearly ruins her marriage. The writing is a bit laborious, but the story is good and its value lies in trying to figure out the real-life people on whom Vita based her fictional characters (Lady Roehampton is definitely Alice Keppel, Edward VII’s last mistress)!

The Reason Why by Elinor Glyn – Read
The story of a beautiful panther-like woman, an English nobleman of slender means and a multi-millionaire who promises to settle a fortune upon the man and take care of the poor relations of the girl if they will marry each other. The reason why he does this the reader must discover for himself. The book is distinct from the author’s former novels but just as clever in plot and style. [Bookseller, vol. 35] Melody: Read this one for he story of financier Francis Markrute’s attempts to woo Lady Ethelrida — it’s a lot more interesting that the central romance of Tristam and Zara, each of whom thinks the other is marrying them for their money, and neither of whom has any.

The American Heiress

Evangeline: Transatlantic marriages became fodder for authors soon after the first spate of marriages in the mid-1870s. By the 1890s, with nine American heiresses marrying in one year alone, it was a well-worn trope of writers, illustrators, journalists, and social commentators. Like Cora and Robert, many of these marriages were outright “cash-for-titles”, but unlike our Earl and Countess of Grantham, the majority did not grow into a love match. Yet popular fiction of the period produced on both sides of the Atlantic continued t fuel the starry-eyed fantasies of readers where the beautiful and intelligent American heiress conquered her British or European nobleman and they lived happily ever after, or provided cautionary tales against the mingling of the Old World with the New.

The Shuttle by Frances Hodgson Burnett (1907)Read
There is much that is food for thought In this tale of the socially elect of the England and America of today. Reuben Vanderpoel of New York has added greatly to the millions his father wrested from the new world, and his two daughters carry that wealth to the old world to re-build two fine old English estates. The elder daughter, Rosie, is the victim of a dissipated fortune-hunter who abuses her and neglects his property. It is left for her sister, Bettina, the best product of American birth and European schools, to come to her rescue twelve years later with a clear head and a large bank account. While at work upon this task she finds that all poor noblemen are not mercenary and that one is both a man and noble. [Book Review Digest v3] Evangeline: Yep, Frances Hodgson Burnett wrote “adult” novels alongside her popular “children’s” titles (quotation marks because the line between adult and children’s popular literature could blur in the Edwardian era), and this is her fine attempt at penning an American heiress romance. The philosophical musings of The Shuttle are rather bizarre, but once you get beyond that, you will love Betty and her prickly earl.

Miss Hogg: The American Heiress by Mrs. V.C. Jones (1900)Read
The adventures of an American girl in London are used as the foundation of this story. Miss Hogg was an uncultured heiress, bent on capturing a coronet. In furtherance of her plans, she uses almost desperate means, and places herself in very perilous situations. Her American wit, however, helps her safely through thom all, and, at the close of the book she is respected and happy. [Father Anthony: A Romance of To-day, advertising pages]

The Title Market by Emily Post (1909)Read
Emily Post treats an old theme flattering to our National pride with some freshness. The story flows smoothly until the American heiress returns to her American lover, but the closing scenes are rather too well arranged to be convincing—everything really could not turn to John’s profit in real life. [The Outlook v93] Melody: I haven’t read this, but: Yes. That Emily Post.

The Dowager Countess and the American Girl by Lilian Bell (1903)Read
The witty story of a family duel between an elderly dowager countess of England and her American daughter-in-law, in which the latter, by the gentlest means, comes off victorious.
Edith Joyce, an amiable and spirited American girl, married Archibald Cavendish [Earl of Mayhew], a dear friend of Sir John Chartersea. Sir John’s wife resents his fondness for Edith. The book contains in its frank conversation keen observations upon English and American society. [ad in Harper’s Weekly v47] Evangeline: Haven’t read this (yet!), but this looks rather akin to Cora’s skirmishes with Violet.

WWI Fiction

Evangeline: Contrary to present-day perceptions of WWI fiction, writers of the period still wrote romantic fantasies, mysteries, women’s fiction and thrillers with the war as a backdrop. In fact, the Great War remained a popular backdrop for now-forgotten novelists and movies up to the outbreak of WWII.

Patricia Brent, Spinster by Herbert George Jenkins (1918) – Read
A bright, pleasing English love story. Patricia is young and attractive and just naturally invents a fiancé so that the other paying guests will stop pitying her lonely state. Romance follows promptly when the fiance insists upon materializing, much to Patricia’s consternation. [Booklist, vol. 15] Melody: Funny, adorable, exciting, and probably pretty accurate about the feeling of being in London during World War I and always having it in the back of your mind–except when it pushes itself to the front (no pun intended).
Evangeline: Ditto!

The Great Impersonation by E. Phillips Oppenheim (1920) – Read
Von Ragastein, of the German secret service, in order to further his country’s sinister designs, lives in London impersonating an Englishman whom he greatly resembles—and a story of interesting and clever, though not always credible, mystery results. [A.L.A. Booklist v16] Evangeline: This was apparently a very, very popular book in its day, spawning a few movie adaptations as well, and perhaps the Granddaddy of the switched-identity plot in spy novels. There’s a massive twist I didn’t see coming, and Oppenheim always includes a pretty neat romance.

The Zeppelin’s Passenger by E. Phillips Oppenheim (1918) – Read
The plot, audacious and full of up-to-date punch, revolves around the machinations of a German spy, who has been dropped from a Zeppelin’s observation car into a quiet English town on the North Sea. He enters the home of two charming Englishwomen through a window and manages to win their promise of secrecy in regard to his movements (which, of course, he makes them believe are innocent) by giving them letters from a prisoner in Germany who is the brother of one woman and the fiance of the other. From then on mystery and suspense and misunderstandings follow in quick succession with the reader panting breathlessly at their heels. It is a story after Mr. Oppenheim’s best style, and that is saying much, for he knows well the ingredients which go to make up an enjoyable bit of romance as well as a best seller. [Bookseller, vol. 49] Evangeline: Another excellent thriller from E. Phillips Oppenheim. The surprising part is how sympathetically the German spy is written and that there is no censure of a married character’s infatuation with him.

The Red Signal by Grace Livingston Hill Lutz (1919)
A real American girl outwits a band of spies and agents for destruction in this country. It is a breathless and exciting yarn. Perhaps the finest touch Is the heroine’s gradual forgetfulness of self and safety as she realizes how her country can be served. [The Independent v98]

Somewhere in France” in Somewhere in France by Richard Harding Davis (1915) – Read
A story about a German spy who masquerades as the wife of an English officer, and is caught in her lie.
Evangeline: This is a great short story set in WWI France with a surprise ending that makes me itch to write what happens next!

A Land Girl’s Love Story by Berta Ruck (1919)Read
Joan tells the tale of two English girls who signed up with the Land army and found amusing experiences with their work, which they did not love at first. Two unattached wounded officers arrived just in time for the romance. [The Booklist v15]

The Girls at His Billet By Berta Ruck (1917)Read
Had you been one of three lonely girls cooped up in a perfect horror of a village on the bleak eastern coast of Britain, without a man about the place except an ancient rheumatic gardener, you could appreciate the wild excitement and the interesting possibilities of having an instruction cam]) established in such an Adamless Eden and a real lieutenant about to be billeted in your own house. He came, precipitating an epidemic of khaki romances, about which the “flapper,” the youngest of the girls at his billet, tells in a sprightly fashion which renders her story irresistible. [The Bookman v45]

Good Old Anna by Marie Belloc Lowndes (1915) – Read
Set in an English cathedral town, this story deals informingly with the problems which a group of naturalized Germans had to meet during the early months of the present European conflict. There is Fritz Frohling, barber and hairdresser, a socialist who, not in sympathy with the militarism of the Kaiser, is content that his son is a sergeant in the British army. There is Hegner, a prosperous merchant who represents the dangerous class of aliens and who, as secret agent, gets English news into Germany. And, most prominent of the group, there is “good old Anna” the faithful servant of an English canon’s widow who, all unwittingly, is drawn into the secret agent’s net. Around the English widow and her daughter the main fabric of the story is woven, brightened by their romances and strengthened by their cheerful philosophy. [Book review digest, vol. 12] Melody: That’s a pretty good summary, actually. I’ll just add that the interest here is more historical than character-based, and that I liked it a lot.

Dangerous Days by Mary Roberts Rinehart (1919) – Read
Dangerous Days is a romance of fine proportions, clear-visioned, absorbing. It deals with the crisis in married life when the inequality of spirit and mind in husband and wife puts affection to the test. [New outlook, vol. 123] Melody: This is Rinehart trying to be all Significant, but having much more success being Appealing. Basically, there’s a manufacturer who’s concerned about the war and social issues and things, and then there’s his wife, who’s not. Proof that Rinehart is still really good even when there’s no mystery or adventure to be had.

Amazing Interlude by Mary Roberts Rinehart (1918) – Read
As “Bab” is the classic story of the American flapper in the old, gay days of unconcern, so Sara Lee is the youth, romance, tenderness, enthusiasm, courage and devotion of American womanhood in the hour of Armageddon. Sara Lee of [Pennsylvania], who opens a soup kitchen at the Front, is decorated by the King and meets a great love. [Ad in The Independent, vol. 94] Melody: This is my new pick for quintessential WWI romance. It’s romantic, it’s adventurous, it shows a young woman being braver than anyone expects, and — I really enjoy how horrible the American fiance is. I’m not proud.

Everyman’s Land, by A.M. and C.N. Williamson (1918) – Read
A.M. and C.N. Williamson conduct the reader through the cities and towns of France that appear in the headlines of the newspapers. The romance of the devastated cities and the romance of the Irish war nurse Mary and her lost American lover run parallel. [The World’s work, vol. 36]

Tam o’ the Scoots by Edgar Wallace (1918) – Read
Edgar Wallace has done a remarkable piece of story writing with the spirit of the times in every paragraph. A typical Scot, a created personality as clear cut in its way as the Doctor of Drumtochty, an American woman with the characteristics of a noble American sacrifice for democracy in hospital life, all the thrills of airplane-triumphs and horrors that James Norman Hall puts into his experiences, and in all, unobtrusively, are the human vibrations that end in the sweetest of human experiences. It is all real life. Not an experience of air flights and fights that is not a real account of an actual experience in the war for world peace. [Journal of education, vol. 89]

The Yellow Dove by George Gibbs (1915)Read
A story that keeps curiosity and excitement on tiptoe every second. Set in the heart of the great war now devastating Europe, an American girl serving under the Red Cross, and her fiance, a young Englishman, are heroine and hero. The mystery is the death dealing “Taube,” the Yellow Dove. There are spies, there are perils, deeds of courage and endurance; and in spite of the tense drama and tragic incidents of a story dealing in war, there is a constant flow of humor. The study of the young Englishman’s development from the typical haw haw who seems nothing but a slacker but who is really deeply involved in the mystery of the Yellow Dove; of the singular actions of John Rizzio; of the love situation between the three principal characters; the stir and color of the immense background, swinging from green English lanes and dinner parties in London to the mud of trenches, the tents and ruins amid which the armies are encamped, the headquarters of General French, the dangerous expanses of the air — it is all in Mr Gibbs’s best style, a thrilling tale that is also a study of human character and emotion under great stress. [Bookseller, vol. 43]

The Secret Witness by George Gibbs (1917) – Read
Mr Gibbs here gives us another novel of the European War quite as thrilling as The Yellow Dove, which has run through fourteen editions. An Austrian girl and an English man accidentally overhear an astounding Teutonic plot. They are discovered and flee, and the great secret service systems of Germany and Austria are set upon their heels. The story gives a clear picture of the events which caused the European War. [PW, vol. 92]

Living Alone by Stella Benson (1919) – Read
Not a real book nor for real people, says the author. It has a story, but more noticeably a style of rattling pretty nonsense and fancies which include witches dropped into very prosaic English atmospheres. For the grown up fairy tale reader. Not popular. [ALA Booklist, vol. 16] Melody: That description is so delightful to me. Anyway, I have not come across a more ridiculous use than this of World War I as a backdrop. It’s got incisive social commentary, a use of fairies and things that reminded me of Susanna Clarke, and it’s occasionally pretty funny. Also there’s a dogfight over London between two witches and their sentient broomsticks, but mostly it’s not as exciting as that makes it sound.

The Firefly of France by Marion Polk Angellotti (1918) – Read
Briefly, The Firefly of France is in the manner of the romance — in the manner of Dumas, of Walter Scott. It is a story of love, mystery, danger and daring. It opens in the gorgeous St. Ives Hotel in New York and ends behind the Allied lines in France. The story gets on its way on the first page and the interest is continuous and increasing until the last page. And it is all beautifully done. [Miss Ingalis, advertising pages]

Nurses in WWI Fiction

Melody: Nursing looms large in World War I-era fiction. It was one of the few ways in which women could contribute to the war effort, which means not only that many women were able to gain skills and agency by joining the Red Cross or private ambulance corps, but that Red Cross nurses became the go-to heroines of war time fiction. In the section above, you’ll find numerous examples of women’s war work — if heroines weren’t nursing or running soup kitchens, they were probably, at the very least, knitting socks for soldiers — but here are a few more serious accounts.

Young Hilda at the Wars by Arthur Gleason – Read
An American girl, two English women, a couple of surgeons and a Red Cross ambulance at the furthest outpost of danger in Belgium. Hilda goes to the war from Iowa with a spirit in her that wins her appointment over hundreds of volunteers to the little dressing station at the fighting line. In the flood of desolation beyond all stemming, the field ambulance corps, always where it has no business to be, works steadily at patching up what men it can. Hilda is a gallant figure of an American girl in the war. With her chauffeur Smith, a nonchalant Cockney lad of reckless bravery, she goes where the fighting is most deadly and ruin and disease blackest, lighting the darkness a little by her humor and charm. This is a true story. Mr Gleason has worked since September with the Monro ambulance which has been under heavier fire than any other ambulance in the war. He has seen these things and he tells them with the power and feeling that always make whatever he has to say go straight to the hearts of his readers. [Out west magazine, vol. 42] Melody: This one’s a little odd, because Hilda’s story is interpersed with, like, random descriptions of dead bodies. But it’s written in a really interesting, straightforward style, and the emphasis on the actions of the characters — and how effective they are — prevents it from being depressing. I liked it a lot.

Letters of a V.A.D. by R.E. LeakeRead
Perth-born Mollie Skinner nursed in India and Burma in the First World War. As ‘R. E. Leake”, she published a novel of nursing on the Western Front. [On the war-path: an anthology of Australian military travel by Robin Gerster, Peter Pierce]

Kings, Queens and Pawns by Mary Roberts Rinehart – Read
Subtitled “An American Woman at the Front” [this] is a volume packed with war incidents and permeated throughout with a keen sense of humor and a fine sense of values. A startling departure from the tales of fiction which have won their author an enviable place in the hearts of American readers, the present volume is an intimate study of woman’s part in the European conflict, her work with the Red Cross and under fire, the attitude of fighting men toward the women at the front and other kindred topics. It is at once a virile and thoroughly enthralling picture of modern warfare and of the women in and out of society who are participating in its various causes. [Bookseller, vol. 43] Melody: Visiting the front in the first year or so of the war was a feat in and of itself, especially for a woman, but Rinehart can lay claim to more than that: at the time she visited Belgium and France, almost no writers were allowed to visit the front. War reporting was frowned upon, and the only person British Army allowed to publish articles about the war was one of its own officers. With that in mind, it’s particularly interesting to read about Rinehart’s travels. She’s unapologetically propagandising, and the Belgian, French and English officers she meets are happy to help. Also, I think she meets the real-life versions of the women in Young Hilda at the Wars.

Children’s WWI Fiction

Melody: Much as I love early twentieth century juvenile series fiction, I won’t claim that any of these books are very good. What they are is a great example of how childrens’ series dealt with the war, because every big series had to. Ruth Fielding became a Red Cross nurse; Tom Slade has extensive wartime adventures, including some as a motorcycle-riding dispatch-bearer; the Girls of Central High series came out of retirement for a book about fund-raising for the Red Cross, etc. The Moving Picture Boys went on a search for stolen propaganda films. There are even entire series based around the war: The Boy Allies, by Clair W. Hayes and Robert L. Drake, were, for boys, what the Red Cross Girls, by Margaret Vandercook, were for girls. And that’s just what I get from consulting my bookshelves.

Ruth Fielding In the Red Cross by Alice B. EmersonRead
Ruth, Helen, and Jennie “Heavy” Stone attend Ardmore College together. Ruth continues to write moving picture scenarios and achieves even greater success. The girls leave college when the Great War begins and travel to Europe to help with the war effort. In time, the war ends, and Jennie Stone marries a French soldier. Tom Cameron suggests that he and Ruth make plans for their future, but Ruth wants a career and feels that marriage would be an obstacle. Ruth also feels that Tom is lazy and wants him to prove himself before they make a commitment.

Ruth Fielding at the War Front by Alice B. Emerson – Read
Ruth has to find out who is giving secrets to the Germans, lay to rest the mystery of a werewolf that is terrifying the locals, and rescue an American boy who is spying behind the German front lines. [Boys and Girls in No Man’s Land: English-Canadian Children and the First World War by Susan Fisher] Melody’s reviews of the Ruth Fielding series

Tom Slade with the Colors (1918) – Read
Tom Slade on a Transport (1918) – Read
Tom Slade with the Boys over There (1918) – Read
Tom Slade, Motorcycle Dispatch Bearer (1918) – Read
Tom Slade with the Flying Corps (1919) – Read, all by Percy Keese Fitzhugh

Melody: The Tom Slade books started out as a boy scout series with a movie tie-in, and after spending a substantial chunk of the middle of the series on the war, goes back to being a boy scout series. But it’s never obnoxious about it. Tom Slade is just honorable and practical and lovely, and he does it as well on a transport or a motorcycle as he does when camping in the woods. All those ridiculous adventure novel plots that revolve around people doing silly things for honor? Tom Slade does them right.

The Red Cross Girls in the British Trenches (1916)
The Red Cross Girls on the French Firing Line (1916)
The Red Cross Girls in Belgium (1916)
The Red Cross Girls with the Russian Army (1916) – Read
The Red Cross Girls with the Italian Army (1917)
The Red Cross Girls Under the Stars and Stripes (1917)
The Red Cross Girls Afloat with the Flag (1918)
The Red Cross Girls with Pershing to Victory (1919) – Read, all by Margaret Vandercook

The Boy Allies at Liege (1915) – Read
The Boy Allies in the Trenches (1915) – Read
The Boy Allies at Verdun (1917) – Read
The Boy Allies on the Somme (1919), all by Clair W. Hayes

The Boy Allies with the North Sea Patrol (1915) – Read
The Boy Allies Under the Sea (1916) – Read
The Boy Allies under Two Flags (1915) – Read
The Boy Allies with Uncle Sam’s Cruisers (1918) – Read, by Ensign Robert L. Drake
Melody: There were actually two “Boy Allies” series — one set with the army and one set with the navy — and these are just a few of the books. Interestingly, it seems that “Ensign Robert L. Drake” was a pseudonym for Clair W. Hayes.

Invasion Literature

Evangeline: One of the leading causes of World War I was the massive amount of tension and propaganda created by the popular media. William Le Queux, a writer of what we could politely consider a “pulp,” churned out so many novels warning English people of the German menace that by the outbreak of WWI, his readers were convinced there were German spies everywhere. Other authors were probably less convinced of the menace but eager to cash in on the craze for “invasion” literature, and between 1871 and 1914, hundreds of works of this genre were published, and regularly topped best-seller lists in England, Germany, France, and the United States.

The Double Traitor by E. Phillips Oppenheim (1915)Read
The tale has to do with a young Englishman in the diplomatic corps in Berlin. Through an indiscretion he loses his post, and not succeeding in making his English colleagues listen to his warnings, he enters the pay of the Germans, substantiates his suspicions and gives his information to the British War Office. In this way he becomes a double traitor, and as such lays himself open to German vengeance. There is a love story running through the book, which is rather tragic in its climax and fails to make that impression of reality which on most occasions is an inherent quality of the Oppenheim stories. Of course, written at the present time, the story is interesting as revealing some more of the inner workings of the diplomatic service and the conditions that plunged Europe into war. [The Book News Month v33] Evangeline: This was my first Oppenheim and I became an immediate fan. He was basically the Ken Follet of his day, and The Double Traitor is a great spy romance with sparse but exciting prose that keeps the pace moving quickly. I love all of the twists and turns of the plot, and the cliff-hangers kept me on the edge of my seat.

The Battle of Dorking (1871) by George Tomkyns ChesneyRead
An imaginary story of an invasion and defeat of Great Britain by Germany ca. 1875, inspired by the defeat of France in the Franco-Prussian War.
Evangeline: The progenitor of Invasion Literature, which sparked numerous spin-offs and inspired others like H.G. Wells to write their own.

The Riddle of the Sands by Erskine Childers (1903)Read
Two young men, an Englishman and an American, cruising in their little yacht among the islands which fringe the German coast, run innocently into a mystery. It is not only a mysterious mystery, but a very important one, as they shortly discover. Out of the welter of secrets, spies, strange deeds at night, adventure and danger emerge two figures — a lovely girl and her sinister father. How the two men at last unlock the secret, and escape with it, and carry off a willing girl and her unwilling father are exciting incidents of an exciting tale. [Our navy. vol. 9] Melody: This is basically the first spy novel, and, as if that weren’t enough, it’s fantastic — adventurous, clever, funny, and suspenseful. One of the few books on this list that remains in print, and deservedly so.

The Invasion of 1910 by William Le Queux (1906)Read
In Mr. Le Queux’s Invasion of 1910 the British Government and the Parliament at Bristol decline altogether to surrender, and after some desperate street fighting the German armies in London, cut off from their base by the British Fleet, and gradually worn down by the peristent hammering of a nation of ill-organised riflemen, are compelled to lay down their arms. [The Spectator v97] Evangeline: This sold more than a million copies world-wide and helped to foster fears of Germany–and no doubt contributed to the race to build more dreadnoughts.

The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan (1915)Read
The English hero learns of German spies who have acquired an important secret. His ensuing breathless experiences are related in a rapid, well-written tale which closes at the outbreak of the present European war. [New York Libraries v5] Melody: A classic adventure novel and a really good book. I don’t know that anything more needs to be said.

Post-War Fiction

Melody: World War I was a center of attention from 1914 to 1918, even in the U.S., which entered the war late. People and governments sent their money, their resources, and as many men as they could spare. So while people were, obviously, glad when the war ended, it also left a gaping hole at the center of everyone’s lives — especially those of the young men who had dropped everything to go join the army. Post-war novels have a couple of things in common: the recklessness and frivolity that set in among young people in reaction to the privations of wartime, and a sense that no one quite knows what to do with themselves.

The Kingdom Round the Corner by Coningsby DawsonRead
The clever author of so many cheering war books in his latest novel writes of “Tabs,” who came back from the war to find the kingdom which he had built up in his dreams fading away from him — and the kingdom had been a girl, audacious and beautiful. The story goes on to tell of how he set out to search for it again and found it — just round the corner. [Bookseller and stationer, vol. 54] Melody: You’ll find all of the usual post-war stuff here. Lots of disillusioned young people who don’t know what they want to do with their lives, although the main characters eventually realize drinking a lot and dancing all night isn’t getting them anywhere. This one starts off really, really well, but doesn’t always keep up the momentum.

The Tale of Triona by William John LockeRead
Engaging story of the marriage of an English girl, full of charm and eager for adventure, and Alexis Triona, a celebrated author whose concealment of a past deceit causes them both great unhappiness. [New York Libraries quarterly, vol. 8] Melody: I suppose that if you go off and have exciting adventures in Russia all through the war, even returning to London as a celebrated author isn’t going to be exciting enough for you, but I don’t know if even that excuses Alexis Triona. This book is pretty ridiculous, but also incredibly engaging somehow.

I’ve Married Marjorie by Margaret WiddemerRead
It is the story of the experiences of a war bride married in all the whirl of excitement on the eve of her husband’s departure. [The Overland Monthly v95] Melody: Maybe I shouldn’t talk about this one? To me, it reads like an unintentional depiction of an abusive relationship.
Evangeline: LOL, I actually love this book despite Francis’ high-handedness. I guess I have a weakness for mad-with-love heroes who will do anything to win the object of his love.

The Trumpeter Swan by Temple BaileyRead
The heroine, Becky Bannister of Virginia — that name alone tells one what to expect and the expectations are in every way fulfilled. Setting — huge estates in the South. Add to this her grandfather, the Judge, who had for the women of his family a youthfully romantic feeling that is somewhat going out of fashion. He liked them to have roses for their pretty noses and laces for their lovely faces and no harsh winds were allowed to blow in their direction. In return he expected their deference. Not so old fashioned after all? With all this potpourri stir in one lovable Southern chap of the old school who has just returned from overseas service and is filled with an ambition to write and a love that is even more strong than his ambition; then add one charming major, and a city youth who plays at love without regard for the consequences until they bite him. Mix all together during a summer breeze. sift in a few plums in the way of pleasant relatives, mothers and friends and you have a perfect recipe for a summer novel. Inconsequential and delightful as angel food. [Social Progress, vol. 7] Melody: This one is very much about being young and disillusioned and back from the front. A little underwhelming, for me, but it hit all the right marks, and parts of it are lots of fun, and by “parts of it,” I mean “most of the minor characters.”


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9 replies on “Vintage Fiction for Your Downton Fix”
  1. says: farmwifetwo

    Elswyth Thane Although they aren’t all over the WWI time period, she lived through the WW’s and the last books were during those years.

    Also, Lucy Maude Montgomery wrote about WWI in Rilla of Ingleside, the last of the Anne books. Again, she lived through the time period and Rilla is a good look at the war from the Canadian (Commonwealth) perspective.

    1. @farmwifetwo Thanks for those recs! I waffled over recommending Rilla of Ingleside since it’s one of the last books in a long series, but it is good for the Canadian perspective.

  2. Might I also suggest American Wives and English Husbands by Gertrude Atherton to add to the list of American Heiress novels?

    There’s also a lovely one-act play by George Bernard Shaw where the heroine is a typist.

  3. says: heidenkind

    What an awesome list! I was hoping either you or Melody would compile some sort of guide like this, and you two did a great job.

    I must add The Riddle of the Sands to my TBR list; I can’t believe I haven’t read that read yet.

  4. says: Melody B

    @farmwifetwo Ooh, the Elswyth Thane books look really interesting. Being historical fiction, they wouldn’t really make sense as part of this list, but I’ll be keeping an eye out for them.

    @Elizabeth I’d also like to know that name of the Shaw play–I’m a bit of a fan.

    @heidenkind Thanks! and definitely read Riddle of the Sands. It’s the best.

  5. What a fascinating list! The Elinor Glyn books sound very interesting. I have just discovered Lady Lucy Duff Gordon, Elinor’s sister, and highly recommend her autobiography written in the thirties, ‘Discretions and Indiscretions’. Gertrude Atherton’s book sounds good too. Thanks!

    1. Lucy Duff Gordon and Elinor Glyn are two of my favorite Edwardian women–their reinvention and innovation are quite inspiring. I have read Lucy’s autobiography, but I think it’s due for a re-read. Glad you’ve enjoyed the list!

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