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A line of American debutantes gathered at the American Ambassador's residence in Regent's Park, London, before leaving for Buckingham Palace to be presented to the Queen, April, 1957. Photo: Edward Miller / Keystone / Getty Images

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Holiday Gift List: High Society

Twelve titles that peek into the world of aristocrats, royals, and the rich / BY Nathalie Atkinson / December 2nd, 2021

Upstairs, downstairs, and the people in between, these books will satisfy the Downton diehard anglophiles, vicarious society set, and devotees of The Crown.

Obsessive Book Buyers: Zoomer editors have carefully curated our book coverage to ensure you find the perfect read. We may earn a commission on books you buy by clicking on the cover image. 

1Capote’s Women: A True Story of Love, Betrayal, and a Swan Song for an Eraby Laurence Leamer

Call it The Real Housewives of Truman Capote. The bestselling author of The Kennedy Women delivers a gossipy flashback to the entanglements of leading 60s socialites – known as “Capote’s swans” – like Marella Agnelli, Slim Keith, Babe Paley, Lee Radiziwill and C.Z. Guest. What unites them is that they let the impish writer of In Cold Blood and Breakfast at Tiffany’s into their privileged inner circle and lived to regret it, after he betrayed them when a scandalous, advance excerpt of Answered Prayers – his thinly veiled (and, eventually, unrealized) novel revealing all their confidences – was published in Esquire magazine.

2Diamonds: Their History, Sources, Qualities and Benefitsby Renée Newman

It was Agnès Sorel, official mistress of France’s Charles VII, who reportedly launched the fashion trend for diamonds. Hundreds of lavish photographs help Newman, a gemologist, trace the precious stone’s industrial and ornamental uses, from talismans through royal lore and the romantic histories of famous creations (like Catherine the Great’s 1762 coronation crown), diamond-cutting techniques, and including the recent phenomenon of man-made diamonds.

3Gilded Age Cocktailsby Cecelia Tichi

This look back at the people – like U.S. railroad king Cornelius Vanderbilt – social forces, and politics that influenced cocktail culture from 1870 to 1910 is more culture than recipes, as, for example, newly monied families tried to buy their way into established society and entertaining became a form of social one-upmanship. Consider it a primer to The Gilded Age, Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes’ long-awaited, upcoming period drama set in New York City during the 1880s (streaming on Crave, Jan. 24, 2022).

4In Royal Service to the Queenby Tessa Arlen

Arlen’s historical novel follows Scottish governess Marion Crawford’s evolving relationship to her charges, the young Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret Rose, as they come of age. Rich in daily, and historic, detail, it recounts the abdication crisis, the Blitz, and the future queen’s courtship by Prince Philip from the viewpoint of an outsider of the British Royal Family, who, over her 16 years of devotion, was affectionately known as Crawfie and sacrificed much of her own happiness to the job. 

5Miss Eliza’s English Kitchenby Annabel Abbs

This winsome, historical novel is about the real-life friendship across age and class that develops between well-to-do Eliza Acton and her teenage assistant Ann Kirby as they work on a groundbreaking cookbook called Modern Cookery for Private Families in 1830s England. In spite of being mistress and servant, their relationship was as close as Downton Abbey’s scullery maid, Daisy, and head housekeeper, Mrs. Patmore. Acton was the influential precursor to Isabella Beeton, an English journalist who later plagiarized many of their original recipes in Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management (1861). The story alternates their points of view about the challenges and expectations of being a woman at the time, and has rich descriptions of flavours, meals, and social etiquette.

6Noble Ambitions: The Fall and Rise of the English Country House After World War IIby Adrian Tinniswood

“In the 1960s rock stars and stately homes went together like cannabis and cookies or Rolls-Royces and swimming pools,” the historian declares in this entertaining book that begins after the war, when most ancestral home histories end. It chronicles how the changing nature of post-war Britain, social upheaval and Swinging London shook up rural tradition when celebrities – like the Rolling Stones – shook up the aristocratic lifestyle as visitors or bought their manors outright. The sheer resourcefulness of the hosts and survival of the historic houses is enthralling, as are the dishy, behind-the-scenes anecdotes of the balls, fancy-dress parties and bohemian guests.

7The Story of the Country House: A History of Places and Peopleby Clive Aslet

As former editor of the genteel staple Country Life, Aslet has spent 40 years visiting and writing about grand homes, and previously wrote An Exuberant Catalogue of Dreams about the American influence on British interior design. So he’s uniquely positioned to take readers inside the evolution of the country house from hunting lodges in the Middle Ages through tales of exceptional British houses (Stokesay Castle, Houghton Hall, Chiswick House, et al.) and the fates of the families that inhabit them today.

8The Last Dance of the Debutanteby Julia Kelly

The courtly origins of debutantes in Queen Charlotte’s Ball are depicted in the first episode of historical romance Bridgerton, when the Regency-era queen receives eligible young ladies who curtsey in turn at a coming-out ball to kick off the season. When 1,400 teenage girls were presented at court to Queen Elizabeth II in March 1958, 

It marked the end of a ritual that had lasted more than 150 years. Set in that final year, the novel follows 18-year-old London dressmaker Lily after she commits to a season’s worth of events and parties in order to please her wealthy grandmother, who supports her family. It’s about old money, new money and the impoverished gentry who participated in the anachronistic ritual, where young women were raised to marry well and had no personal ambitions.

9The Unofficial Bridgerton Cookbookby Lex Taylor

The food styling on the period romance Bridgerton is, to me, as remarkable as its Emmy-winning costumes and elaborate, gravity-defying hairstyles. The hundred recipes in this pretty and ornate cookbook take inspiration from those lavish feasts and reference characters and plot points, but they’re surprisingly accessible for those without servants. Debutante Punch will loosen lips, Meringue Kisses in the Garden are more tempting than Daphne and Simons love affair, and afternoon tea and gossip in the drawing room over Scheming Ginger Tea-Glazed Honey Cake will surely earn Lady Whistledown’s approval.

10The Gentle Art of Fortune Huntingby K.J. Charles

It is possible that I am including this book simply so I may use the words “ribald” and “romp” to describe its delights as a lighthearted, sharply-written romance. It’s about a pair of poor siblings, Robin and his sister Marianne, who are in London to take part in the season and find rich spouses. The Regency setting is similar to Julia Quinn’s now-beloved Bridgerton series, with many of the same tropes of conflicts, jealousies, evil lords and social strategizing, as Robin attempts to convince a grumpy baronet with great thighs (plot twist!) that his ambitions are noble.

11Workhorseby Kim Reed

This tell-all memoir from inside the Mario Batali restaurant empire paints a picture of the high life in contemporary Manhattan that has been described as The Devil Wears Prada, where fashion, food and celebrity intersect. It’s a startlingly accurate sketch of social hierarchies and inequities, starting with the author’s beginnings as a hostess at Batali’s Greenwich Village restaurant Babbo and following her rise over 17 years into the grind and nexus of New York’s strive-and-hustle order, parallel to the rise of food networks and chef as popular hero, ending with Batali’s toxic workplace scandal.

12Vanderbilt: The Rise and Fall of an American Dynastyby Anderson Cooper with Katherine Howe

The CNN anchor, a great-great-great-grandson of the railway and shipping magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt, who was once the richest man in America, delves into the history of his outrageously wealthy forebears, who, until the Kennedys, were as close as America got to royalty. It’s told through individual vignettes of family members, be it the heirs who fought over the staggering fortune or the subsequent generations who frittered it away, or even the recent past, when the last of the heirs was forced out of their Newport, RI, estate. It comes alive when he writes about his mother, Gloria Vanderbilt, the late fashion designer and iconoclast.


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