Watching PBS’s “Downton Abbey,” which just returned for a fourth season, can feel like reading a novel. The show has all the trappings of a literary classic — the shooting parties, the shooting glances, cruel entails, the devotional that is tea. Most literary of all: While Carson passionately decants wine instead of Mrs. Hughes, while Lady Mary rolls her eyes at absolutely everyone, and while Edith makes another bad choice that might harm the family’s standing, they all use proper grammar.
And so the “Masterpiece” hit has become a prompt for fans to dig into the wealth of great period novels out there. In an interview last year, Julian Fellowes told me he was inspired while writing “Downton Abbey” by the fiction of his two favorite authors, Anthony Trollope and Edith Wharton, both of whom took on the same repression, class division, and financial insecurity that plague Fellowes’s characters. He talked about his reverence for Evelyn Waugh’s “Brideshead Revisited ” too, saying, “We’re coming at a similar subject matter from a different direction.”