Tuesday, January 31, 2012

If you, like me, are crazy for 'Downton Abbey,' you must read Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey: The Lost Legacy of Highclere Castle (Broadway Paperbacks, $15.99), written by Lady Fiona Carnarvon, Countess of Carnarvon. Highclere is the real-life castle that is the inspiration and setting for Downton Abbey, and Lady Fiona -- who maried the Earl of Carnarvon in 1999 -- has lived at Highclere for the past twelve years (though the jacket text states they've lived at Highclere for eight years, Lady Fiona notes in her Prologue that it's been twelve, and I've decided I prefer to believe that!).

The true story of Lady Almina, 5th Countess of Carnarvon, is positively fascinating, and much that happens in the life of Lady Cora Crawley in the PBS show is based on the life of Lady Almina, who is believed to be the illegitimate daughter of Alfred de Rothschild (there is no doubt who her mother was: Marie Wombwell, widow of a "heavy drinker and reckless gambler," Frederick Wombwell). Lady Almina truly was an exceptional woman, in many ways, but I was no less taken with her husband, George Edward Stanhope Molyneux Herbert, who, quite remarkably, was with Howard Carter when he discovered the tomb of Tutankhamun on 4 November, 1922. As Lady Fiona notes, "despite the differences in the two men's social background, they were a formidable alliance and became great friends." Lord Carnarvon apparently adored the exquisite objects he and Carter were discovering, but again as Lady Fiona notes, the book he wrote with Carter about their five-year-long dig at Thebes was quite a serious work, published by Oxford University Press and illustrated with his own photographs (I think the book published by Routledge/Kegan Paul Library of Ancient Egypt in 2006, Tutankhamen and the Discovery of His Tomb, is a reprinted edition of this noted work).

In her Epilogue, Lady Fiona writes that Highclere today is an ensemble of characters just as it was in Almina's time. She met relatives of the former staff while researching this book and they helped enormously in shedding light on life in the 'downstairs' areas of the castle. "Today," she adds, "the Castle and estate still house families who have worked and lived here for generations. They pass down stories of predecessors. Retirement is possible but not mandatory. The new generation learns from the old. 'Newcomers' have worked here for fifteen or twenty years and 'proper Castle people' may stay for up to fifty years. Some people think they are coming to work for a short time and find it hard to leave."

I devoured this book, starting it one morning and finishing it late the next night, and I loved it. I think you will, too. And if you're traveling to England this spring or summer (for the Olympics, perhaps?) note that Highclere Castle is open to visitors! Online ticket purchases may be made beginning the second half of February, and ticket prices range from 5 to 16 British Pounds per adult. The Castle is closed until the 1st of April and welcomes visitors until the 15th of that month, then it's open on select dates in May and June, and in the summer it's open from 1 July to 13 September. The Highclere website features good visitor information -- with suggestions for accommodations and places to eat in the area -- and Egyptology links.

The other image above is of a special edition of two novels by Julian Fellowes, who wrote the screenplay for 'Downton Abbey' (Fellowes is also an actor, notably in the BBC series 'Monarch of the Glen,' and he won an Oscar for best writing, original screenplay for the film 'Gosford Park' in 2001.) My British friend Yvonne visited me last fall and when she found out I was such a fan of 'Downton Abbey' she asked if I'd read any of Fellowes' novels. I didn't even know at that time that he'd written any, so she sent me the British editions of Past Imperfect and Snobs (the U.S. editions sport different covers). I recently finished reading them and found them equally as engaging and I highly recommend them! Yvonne thinks Fellowes is particularly brilliant at portraying British class differences, and I completely agree. I was ignorant of the fact that such traditions as debutante balls, coming out parties, and strict seasonal wardrobes we inherited from the British -- I had thought they were uniquely American (and I'm not even sure these things are still popular, though they were still going strong when I started college in the late '70s). The main character in Past Imperfect, which is set in the present but recounts events from the late '60s, observes that "before the first war, among the upper classes, five or six changes a day, for walking, shooting, breakfast, lunch, tea and dinner, were de rigueur at any house party and three at least were necessary for a day in London. They observed these tiresome rituals of dress for the simple reason that they knew once they stopped looking like a ruling class they would soon cease to be a ruling class. Our politicans have only just learned what the toffs have known for a thousand years: Appearance is all. Why, then, did it die so suddenly? Because they stopped believing in themselves."

Good stuff. I eagerly await this Sunday's episode of 'Downton Abbey' -- whether the deja blue Super Bowl lineup is over or not!

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