Rutherford Park: A Novel, by Elizabeth Cooke – A Review

Rutherford Park: A Novel, by Elizabeth Cooke 2013From the desk of Christina Boyd

It you are a fan of Downton Abbey and are jonesing for a Grantham family-like fix until season four premieres next January on PBS, Elizabeth Cooke’s latest novel Rutherford Park might be just the ticket. Set during the Edwardian era at the eponymous estate in the Yorkshire countryside, the Cavendish family are as wealthy, titled, and drama-filled as the Grantham’s, yet we are privileged to be reading a book, as opposed to watching a screenplay, so the author’s historical detail, characterizations and compelling narrative make it even more intriguing

Rutherford Park is the seat of the Cavendish family who live their lavish lives by strict rules and obligation. Not surprisingly, the beautiful Lady Octavia Cavendish is lonely and bored, even somewhat envies the servants for their work. Her husband William, bound by the obligations of his title and his vows, unknowingly feels a similar discontent. “They saw him as some sort of fixed being, a symbol, a caricature. Octavia too, perhaps, in her great wool-and-velvet shawl with her pretty little straw-colored boots under a cream dress. They were both a sort of monument, he supposed: not real in the same way that the laborers were real…” p. 52. Later when Octavia suspects William of an affair with a longtime family acquaintance from Paris, the last remnants of a charmed world seemed to disappear.

The son and heir Harry, has his own dreams of flying aeroplanes but with the tragic death at Christmastime of a housemaid, those dreams might quickly disintegrate as well. With a house full of guests for the holidays, suspicions are evoked, while expectations and beliefs are shattered. “A sort of crazed idea rattled in his brain, pressed down on his tongue as if it were going to leap out of his mouth. He realized that he was shaking not from cold now, but from the sensation of standing on the edge of a precipice where everything hinged on his next reply.” p. 69. Within months all the family is in London, attempting to move on from the shocking events and discoveries at Rutherford. Louisa Cavendish, the innocent and naïve daughter, is preparing to make her Presentation and seems the most unlikely candidate to engage in a tryst with a mysterious stranger.  Wearied in spirits, Octavia escapes to the country to wallow in her own self-pity, leaving her daughters in the care of friends.

While secrets and fidelity remain in question, William departs for Paris to attend business and settle personal accounts, leaving the family adrift. Meanwhile John Gould, a handsome, rich American houseguest comes to study the history of the Cavendishes and becomes more than a distraction to Octavia. “He hadn’t come to England to fall in love with someone else’s wife. Especially not an unhappy wife. A carefree woman who yearned for a little affair – maybe… maybe he could have happily got himself embroiled for a few weeks, though carelessness with a woman was not his nature. But this. This bloody fever. This was what the English would call it: bloody. And it was.” p. 189

Fast on the heals of other Edwardian England series like T. J. Brown’s Summerset Abbey and Phillip Rock’s The Greville Family Saga, I was somewhat reluctant to read this latest by Elizabeth Cooke. As much as I enjoyed the aforementioned series, I was skeptical about reading another book seemingly riding the Downton Abbey wave of success. But my concerns were for naught—Rutherford Park: A Novel is an unreservedly, gripping drama. The strained relationship of Lord William and Lady Cavendish are put to the ultimate test while their children scramble to find how they too fit, and the staff and surrounding villages dependent on Rutherford Park toil away with their own struggles. Likening to the inevitability of the WWI rumblings in this epic tale, could this stand-alone novel be the start of a veritable series? My source tells me, yes! Elizabeth Cooke is currently working on a second Rutherford book. A must for your summer reading as Rutherfold Park is a regular stunner!

5 out of 5 Stars

Rutherford Park: A Novel, by Elizabeth Cooke
Berkely Trade (2013)
Trade paperback (336) pages
ISBN: 978-0425262580

Cover image courtesy of Berkley Trade © 2013; text Christina Boyd © 2013, Austenprose

The Ashford Affair: A Novel, by Lauren Willig – A Review

Image of the book cover of The Ashford Affair, by Lauren Willig © 2013 St. Martin’s PressFrom the desk of Christina Boyd

In a departure from her Napoleonic spy romances of the Pink Carnation Series, New York Times bestselling author Lauren Willig ventures into new territory with The Ashford Affair. Entwining one generation’s story with that of another, from post-Edwardian British society to modern day Manhattan to a coffee farm in Kenya, the long veiled secrets of a woman are unraveled.

Clementine Evans, a focused, driven law associate on the cusp of making partner in a large Manhattan firm, attends her beloved grandmother Adeleine’s 99th birthday and is accidentally enlightened to a family secret. At 34, Clemmie, feeling like her life is nothing but a 70-plus hour workweek, and a failed engagement, this intrigue becomes more than a distraction to the un-fulfilling, lonely details of her days.

Clemmie slid the picture back into the drawer. There was another underneath it, a studio portrait of a woman, her head tilted. Her pale hair was crimped in stylized waves around her face and her pale eyes gazed soulfully into the distance. She looked, somehow, strangely familiar, her cheekbones, the shape of her lips, as if Clemmie had seen her somewhere before.” p. 65.

But trying to get any information from her own tight-lipped mother proves difficult. And how is it that her ex-stepbrother knows more about the family histories than she does?

Adeleine Gillecote’s parents die when she is almost six and she grows up as the mouse-brown ward of her aristocratic aunt and uncle at Ashford Park, a grand English country house. Though brought up with her cousins, Addie never overcomes the status of a poor relation. Despite this, her best friend from almost the start is her vivacious, beautiful, golden cousin, Bea, who takes Addie under her wing, sheltering Addie from her unwelcoming mother, and earning her love and fidelity. As the girls grow and experience the pre-WWI balls and English society, Addie tries not to begrudge Bea’s beauty or her unaffected graces. But when a man comes between the two, it appears all loyalties come to an end, and, escaping to Kenya still isn’t quite far enough. “Addie pressed her fist to her lips, trying not to think what she was thinking. She closed her eyes, fighting a terrible certainty, the certainty that what she was hearing was true, that this was Bea, that Bea had, did, and always would do what she liked, regardless of the consequences, regardless even of Addie.”  p. 196.

Although this latest offering is a non-Pink novel, fans of Willig’s the Pink Carnation Series will be giddy with delight when they meet the handsome, cynical and witty descendant of Lord Vaughn. Yes! That Vaughn from The Masque of the Black Tulip.

“He looked feline himself, all boneless grace, with the measureless self-satisfaction afforded by knowing his ancestors had been dining off gold plate when others had still been scratching about in the dirt: the Honorable Theophilius Vaughn, the despair of the ancient line. According to his frustrated family, he had both the morals of a cat and all of its nine lives.” p. 248.

The spawn of Vaughn.”  Ha!! Her words from her website, not mine!

Some have described this novel as Out of Africa meets Downton Abbey. *sigh* Well, use those cinematic visuals if you must, but I can honestly attest, The Ashford Affair is so much more. Much more. This is the kind of the novel that will stay with you; keep you mulling over the vibrant characters and intrinsic detailing long after you’ve inhaled that satisfying last page. Lauren Willig’s The Ashford Affair is brilliant! Glittering brilliance.

5 out of 5 Stars

The Ashford Affair: A Novel, by Lauren Willig
St. Martin’s Press (2013)
Hardcover (368) pages
ISBN: 978-1250014498

Cover image courtesy © 2013 St. Martin’s Press; text © 2013 Christina Boyd, Austenprose

To Marry an English Lord, by Gail MacColl and Carol McD. Wallace – A Review

Image of book cover of To Marry an English Lord, by Gail MacColl and Carol McD. Wallace (2012)From the desk of Laura A. Wallace. 

Originally published in 1989, this 2012 re-issue of To Marry and English Lord is an attractive trade paperback edition by Workman Publishing. Promoted as “an inspiration for Downton Abbey,” Julian Fellowes, the screenplay writer who created the series, has been quoted as saying that he was reading this book when approached about writing the series, and that the first character he conceived for it was Cora, Countess of Grantham, an American heiress.

This book has long been on my “to acquire and read” list so I was really looking forward to finally reading it. I found it to be fairly light reading. The chapters are divided up into short sub-headings, sprinkled with lots of side-bar quotations and tid-bits (at least one on every page), and interspersed with little mini-articles on every third or fourth page. Illustrations are copious; decorations are Victorian and Edwardian. Overall it presents a great deal of factual information in a very digestible way.

This is the sort of book that serves as an introduction to a topic, and a launching pad for further research. (It is the type of book that novelists unfortunately use as a primary source, but that is a rant for another time.) It has no footnotes or endnotes, but does have a good selective bibliography which includes a list of period fictional works. The index is good (if imperfect) and there are excellent appendices, including a “Register of American Heiresses” and a “Walking Tour of the American Heiresses’ London” which are handy references.

The text is organized in a loosely chronological way. It begins with the origins of Anglomania (the 1860 U. S. visit of the young Prince of Wales) and the beyond-Almack’s-despotic exclusivity of Old New York “Knickerbocker” society which ruthlessly excluded new money. So the first set of snubbed wives and daughters left New York for Paris and then London in the 1870s, where they scored aristocratic English husbands, got themselves into the Prince of Wales’s social set, and rarely bothered to cross the Atlantic again.

This first set was comparatively small, comprising only about half a dozen women, and it is they who earned the sobriquet “The Buccaneers.” The most famous girl in this first wave was Jennie Jerome, who married Lord Randolph Churchill and became the mother of Sir Winston Churchill.

But that was just the tip of the spear of the “American Invasion.” The ranks grew steadily and kept up the pace until the death of Edward VII in 1910, after which it trickled off and ended with World War I. I had not realized, until reading this book, that the invasion was so extensive. There were at least two dozen who married into the peerage itself, and dozens more who married younger sons, baronets, M.P.s, and gentry. The “Register” at the back of the book lists about 115 of them, and this list, of course, cannot be exhaustive.

It was not just their pots of money that made these women so attractive to Englishmen.  Their manners were free, easy, and confident, the complete opposite of those of demure, shy English girls. They were well-educated and very well-dressed, usually by Worth.  They were pretty, too, their very lack of “breeding” apparently considered a bonus by their targets, if not by their mamas (appealing at a genetic level, perhaps?). The Prince of Wales loved them, and where he led, everyone followed.

I did find a few factual errors, an occasional absurd assertion, and a couple of errors in titles usage (of course), but overall the information presented seems solid. I encourage readers to use this book as a spring platform to explore other works, whether Consuelo, Duchess of Marlborough’s memoirs, the novels of Wharton, James, and Hardy, or perhaps some of the lesser-known novels of the day. (The latter are featured in a mini-article, but not listed in the bibliography.) The book nicely provides the most general background material to improve enjoyment of the portraits of Sargent (there are hundreds on Wikimedia Commons) or of the costume dramas to which we are all highly addicted.

4 out of 5 Stars

To Marry an English Lord, by Gail MacColl and Carol McD. Wallace
Workman Publishing (2012)
Trade paperback (403) pages
ISBN: 978-0761171959

Cover image courtesy © Workman Publishing Group; text © 2012 Laura A. Wallace

Summerset Abbey: A Novel, by T. J. Brown – A Review

Summerset Abbey, by T. J. Brown (2013)From the desk of Christina Boyd

Now that the third season of Downton Abbey has ended and left us quite reeling, what better balm to sooth our broken hearts than this new Edwardian series, Summerset Abbey by debut writer T. J. Brown. The year is 1913, the prelude to WWI, and three young women gently pursue their life’s hopes and desires, surrounded by the tacit convention of society. From almost page one, this historical fiction begins to weave its web as Sir Philip Buxton, who has raised his two beautiful daughters alongside the daughter of their governess, who is much like a sister to them, dies. Now the girls must abandon all they know, their Bohemian lifestyle, household and modern manners to live under the charge of their traditional Edwardian uncle at his extensive estate, Summerset Abbey.

Raised to esteem the person and not riches or rank, Rowena and Victoria encounter their first snag when they learn that although they will be welcomed to Summerset, their “sister” Prudence Tate is not, as she is but the daughter of a governess. In a rash moment, and fearing they might lose Prudence forever, Rowena claims they must have a lady’s maid and solicits Prudence for the job. Although claiming it is but temporary until Rowena comes into her own money and can provide for them all, balancing loyalty while attempting to fashion out a place for herself becomes her true cross to bear. “How independent had she been, really? She knew nothing of finances and had never bothered to ask. She’s had all of the freedom, none of the responsibility, and stupidly, she’d never even know what to ask for. She’d been selfish, thoughtlessly flitting from one whimsy to another, never learning anything useful. No wonder her father had given financial responsibility to his brother.” Rowena’s intentions are honorable but to have her so-called sister relegated below stairs, with the duties entailed upon Prudence, is a cruelty “suspended between upstairs and downstairs worlds of Summerset, and truly belonging to neither.”

Prudence, who was raised nearly as one of Sir Buxton’s daughters, is now nothing more than the girls’ lady’s maid and yet the household staff won’t accept her any more than Lord & Lady Buxton consider her family. Moreover she can’t shake this niggling sensation, even when she encounters absolute strangers in the village, why they shy away from her person as well. “Her mother had begun as a maid. She had no idea what her father had done for work, as her mother never spoke of him, but she had family who lived in the village. No doubt many of them had worked for the Buxtons or one of the other titled families in the area. Was there really a fundamental difference between those of the lower class and those of the upper class, aside from the circumstances of one’s birth, something over which a person has no control? Why did those of the lower classes put up with being made to feel as if they were second-class humans?”

The younger sister Victoria, although of delicate health, has a voracious, lively mind and aspires to become a botanist, as was her father. Victoria’s unconventional studies and research steer her to make a scandalous discovery about the family that powers the narrative further into intrigue.  “She was putting the books away when a newspaper clipping fluttered out of the back of one of the books. Her heart raced as she realized what it was…”

Meanwhile Prudence catches the eye of Summerset’s dashing houseguest, Lord Billingsly, as well as the comely footman, Andrew, but they only seem to add to her confusion and turmoil. ““I certainly did not promise you the second dance, Lord Billingsley,” she huffed, searching for Andrew over his shoulder. But then his hand cupped her waist, sending a shiver up her spine, and she forgot about Andrew, forgot about everything except trying to breathe.” In addition, Rowena becomes captivated by a dashing test pilot, entangling herself in another family mystery: who is this fine, young man and what does he mean to the Buxtons?

As the early twentieth century evolved with the coming industry, electricity, radio, aeroplanes and the talk of war, it also brought the end to the excesses of many aristocratic families and houses. Opinions were changing and the girls were raised to be open to itAuthor T. J. Brown has richly drawn these shifting times through well-drawn characters, compelling plotlines and conspiracy on nearly every other page. My only complaint – and it’s a major one — is that the ending was inexplicably stunted! And shocking! And unforeseen! But blessedly, book two in this three-book saga, Summerset Abbey, A Bloom in Winter was just released on March 5. Note: book three, Summerset Abbey, A Spring Awakening is coming in early August 2013. Albeit this will be catnip for Downton Abbey fans, this novel will dazzle you on its own merit.  It’s the bee’s knees!

4.5 out of 5 Stars

Summerset Abbey: A Novel, by T. J. Brown
Gallery Books (2013)
Trade paperback (320) pages
ISBN: 978-1451698985

Cover image courtesy of © 2013 Gallery Books; text © 2013 Christina Boyd, Austenprose

The Passing Bells: Book One of the Greville Family Saga, by Philip Rock – A Review

The Passing Bells, by  Philip Rock (2012)I love a good mystery. I just didn’t know that I would be so personally engaged in one for over thirty years.

In 1980, a read a book about an aristocratic English family during WWI that I absolutely adored. I was so enthusiastic about it that I promptly loaned it to my best friend who never thought of it again until about a year later when I asked for it back. She had no idea where my copy was. I was devastated. Unfortunately, I had forgotten to write down the title or author. I could only remember that bell was in the title.

Decades passed and the book never left my list of “to find titles.” When Internet search engines and online used book stores became available to me I searched again to no avail. Last month I was perusing the new release table at Barnes & Noble and a book title jumped out at me. The Passing Bells sounded vaguely familiar so I read the back description and checked the copyright date. “Originally published in 1978.” I stood and stared at the cover in stunned silence. I had found it again. It was a book miracle.

I immediately download a copy to my NOOK and commenced reading. After a long and unyielding quest I wondered if time had romanticized my memory. Had The Passing Bells become my Holy Book Grail?

The summer of 1914 will mark the last days of a privileged way of life for many English aristocrats and the working class who served them. Political unrest is looming on the continent, but at Abingdon Pryory, the palatial grand manor house of the Greville family in Surrey, the pleasures of the ruling class continue as parties, dances and romances are in full swing. The lord of the manor, Anthony Greville, 9th earl of Stanmore rides his favorite hunter Jupiter through his vast estate while his wife Hanna Rilke Greville, Countess Stanmore, plans the debut season in London of their beautiful young daughter Alexandria and worries about her eldest son Charles, whose studies at Cambridge and determination to marry Lydia Foxe, a wealthy local girl with no family connections are foremost on her mind. Up for a weekend in the country are family friends Captain Fenton Wood-Lacy of the Coldstream Guards, hard up for cash and seeking a bride, and the eccentric wife of the Marquees of Dexford and her dowdy youngest daughter Winifred hoping to spark a romance with the heir. Interestingly, Hanna’s American nephew Martin Rilke, a young journalist from Chicago, arrives for a summer holiday and we see this truly English family from a new perspective.

Downstairs there is an army of servants maintaining the ancient estate and the lives of their upstairs employer in grand style. A new maid Ivy Thaxton is learning the ropes in the hierarchy of the servant class while chauffeur Jamie Ross tinkers with Rolls Royce engines and dreams of submitting patents of his designs.

The tug and pull of the family dynamics soon expands to a wider field with the outbreak of WWI. We travel to northern France with Captain Wood-Lacy with his battalion and Martin Rilke as a newspaper reporter and witness the chaotic beginnings of the war and the devastating losses at Ypres. At home, the Greville’s  neighbor, wealthy businessman Archie Foxe, uses his food empire and knowledge of distribution to aid the war effort becoming even wealthier. As all the young men are enlisted for King and Country, and the young women are employed in the cities, the staff at Abingdon Pryory dwindles down to a skeleton crew. The ladies do their part and daughter Alexandria and housemaid Ivy enlist in the women’s nursing units.

The narrative covers between 1914-1920, and we are witness to more warfare with the soldier Charles Greville and reporter Martin Rilke who witness the massive military blunders and tragic loss of thousands of lives at Gallipoli in Turkey and through the balance of the war. The effect on the home front by those who must bear the devastating personal losses and changes to a way of aristocratic life that will never be again is equally as compelling and heart wrenching. Even with all the destruction of life, family and country there is hope and romance for a few of the main characters.

Philip Rock is a fabulous writer. His screenwriting skills are wholly apparent on every page. He moves the story swiftly on with a directorial eye by including just enough fact and emotion to keep you glued to the page and engaged at every moment without looking back. Even though there are many characters and plot lines running concurrently I was able to keep up and enjoy all the great historical detail and the amazing characters that he developed. My favorites were Fenton and Martin; both men of honor and integrity who represented outsiders to the Greville family whose objective perspectives were similar to narrator Charles Ryder in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited.

I am happy to say that my melancholy sentiments might have clouded my judgment just a tad while re-reading, but after 30 plus years, it was all that I remembered and more—a book to cherish and read again. Intriguing and intoxicating, The Passing Bells is a future American classic that I encourage anyone interested in historical fiction and first rate storytelling to read immediately. I am looking forward to the next two books in this trilogy: Circles of Time and A Future Arrived. I hope you will return here to read my next two reviews of the series on March 09 and April 06, 2013.

5 out of 5 Stars

The Passing Bells: Book One of The Greville Family Saga, by Philip Rock
William Morrow (2012)
Trade paperback (544) pages
ISBN: 978-0062229311

© 2013 Laurel Ann Nattress, Austenprose

Wentworth Hall, by Abby Grahame – A Review

Wentworth Hall, by Abby Grahame (2012)Review by Kimberly Denny-Ryder

If you enjoy Persuasion, Downton Abbey, or even Gossip Girl, you’re going to want to pay attention to this review.  Abby Grahame’s debut novel, Wentworth Hall, is a combination of all of the above and more.  Filled with themes and story lines that involve the mixing of social classes, lies, deceit, unrequited/lost loves, gossip and more, this book is jam packed from start to finish.

The Darlington family is one of the most powerful families in all of England in the beginning of the twentieth-century.  Under their massive estate, Wentworth Hall, all the intricate daily goings-on of all the family members coincide with each other and secret and scandal run amok.  Maggie Darlington, the elder sister, has always been known to be more raucous and carefree, yet she is now much more reserved and secretive since returning from her year away.  Although her secret is not revealed until the end of the novel, its effects on all the other members of the household are immediate, as the Darlington family fights to save its polished image as it begins to crack amongst whispers in the local media.  A series of newspaper articles that are supposedly satirical on the surface seem to be all too similar to the actual lives of the Darlingtons, and soon everyone begins to speculate as to the fate of this famed family.  Will they be able to uphold the noble status of their estate?  What is Maggie’s secret?

Wentworth Hall can be summed up in one word – glamorous.  While the hall itself isn’t, Grahame’s rich writing and fascinating storylines can 100% be described in this way.  (For a perfect example of her glamorous writing style, check out the guest post she posted last week here on Austenprose)  I’m still surprised that this is Grahame’s debut novel.  Her understanding of the culture, most specifically the social aspects, is captivating.  Similar to Persuasion and even Downton Abbey, Grahame explores the mixing of social classes using a love story as her plot device.  Using the Edwardian Era as the backdrop for her sweeping drama allows her to use the upstairs/downstairs and master/servant mentality to clearly demonstrate her narrative style.

I really enjoyed all of characters different secrets and how they were revealed and unraveled, merging together in the end.  It wasn’t difficult for me to figure out what each person was hiding, but I think it’ll be less obvious for the younger crowds that pick this up to read.

My major disappointment was the vagueness of the ending.  This young adult novel builds and builds and does resolve itself, but with few details.  It’s like going from point A to Z with nothing in the middle.  It left me wondering if this was going to be part of a series.  If it is in fact scheduled to be part of a series, then the vagueness sets up the plot for future books nicely.  Despite this, the splendor of Grahame’s writing combined with the excitement of the plot made me into a big fan of Wentworth Hall.  I humbly suggest that it becomes the next addition to your “to read” pile.

4 out of 5 Stars

Wentworth Hall, by Abby Grahame
Simon & Schuster (2012)
Hardcover (228) pages
ISBN: 978-1442451964

Kimberly Denny-Ryder is the owner/moderator of Reflections of a Book Addict, a book blog dedicated to following her journey of reading 100 books a year, while attempting to keep a life! When not reading, Kim can be found volunteering as the co-chair of a 24hr cancer awareness event, as well as an active member of Quinnipiac University’s alumni association.  When not reading or volunteering, Kim can be found at her full-time job working in vehicle funding. She lives with her husband Todd and two cats, Belle and Sebastian, in Connecticut.

© 2007 – 2012 Kimberly Denny-Ryder, Austenprose

Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey: The Lost Legacy of Highclere Castle, by The Countess of Carnarvon – A Review

Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey: The Lost Legacy of Highclere Castle, by The Countess of Carnarvon  (2011)Review by Laura A Wallace

The Countess of Carnarvon has written a biography of one of her predecessors:  Almina, Countess of Carnarvon, wife of the 5th Earl of Carnarvon.  This book lacks depth but is fairly well written and well researched.  It does not purport to be a sophisticated biography, being entirely without footnotes or endnotes, and claims, in the Prologue, to be “neither a biography nor a work of fiction, but places characters in historical settings, as identified from letters, diaries, visitor books and household accounts written at the time.”  I found this characterization a little puzzling because it is clearly a biography and does not in any way approach fiction:  there is no dialogue and very little in the way of scenes or vignettes.  I rather wish Lady Carnarvon had chosen to go in one direction or the other:  a meaty, substantive biography or a lighter, fictionalized account.  But the result is easy to read and the bibliography, if little else, is substantive (though it seems to me that little of it actually made it into the text).

I can reduce my review to three phrases:  (1) Title Abuse;  (2)  Downton Abbey;  (3) Amelia Peabody.  I’ll take them in reverse order.  To be honest, there is nothing about Amelia Peabody in the book at all.  But for those who are fans of hers (I speak of the series of novels written by Elizabeth Peters), the account of Howard Carter’s discovery (along with the 5th Earl of Carnarvon, of course) of the King Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922 inevitably brings Amelia and her milieu to mind.  Having long been familiar with not only Carter but other real people like Wallis Budge and even T. E. Lawrence from the Peabody novels, I felt like an insider when it came to Lord Carnarvon’s archaeological efforts in Egypt.  And this book, rather than sending me back to watch Downton Abbey all over again, sent me instead to reread the novels about Amelia Peabody (and Vicky Bliss too).

The Downton Abbey connection (in case you missed it) is that Highclere Castle, the ancestral home of the Earls of Carnarvon, is the filming location for Downton Abbey, which is set contemporaneously with Almina’s tenure as chatelaine of Highclere.  The 5th Earl inherited his patrimony at a young age, and soon realized (as did Downton’s Earl of Grantham) that he needed to marry an heiress to secure his estates and lifestyle.  But instead of choosing an American heiress, as some other peers of his generation did, Lord Carnarvon selected an heiress from the Rothschild family.  To be fair, it appears to have been a love match—she was vivacious, charming, warmhearted, and beautiful, and they seem to have had a long and remarkably happy marriage—but, as with the fictional Granthams, money is what made the love match possible for the Carnarvons.  And the house played a great role in their lives.

The first and most obvious difference between the reality of Highclere and the fiction of Downton is that the roles of the servants were substantially reduced and simplified for television.  The “mutually dependent community” of Highclere was run, not by a butler, but by a steward.  There was also a groom of the bedchambers, butler, under-butler, and of course valets, all above at least four footmen (who powdered their hair to wait at table until 1918), who were above porters and the steward’s room boy (whose primary job was to find and alert the proper staff when one of the sixty-six bells rang).  The female staff was likewise magnified, and the division of labor among all these servants was not always the traditionally understood setup as depicted in Downton Abbey.  The outdoor staff included not only an estate agent, but gamekeepers, gardeners, coachmen, grooms, stableboys, and people to take care of the automobiles.  And that’s just for the house and its immediate environs, not even getting out into the estate’s farms and tenantry.  Lady Carnarvon rightly describes the setup as feudal—even though the house itself had been (re)built during the 4th Earl’s lifetime.  (The estate had been owned by his family since the late seventeenth century.)

Like Downton, Highclere played a role as a private hospital during the World War I, funded and run by the Countess.  But after some months, she decided that the house and location were inadequate and moved her hospital to a house in London in Bryanston Square.  She purchased the latest equipment, hired the best staff, and did her utmost to make the officers under her care feel as though they were guests in a private house rather than in an institution.  Also like Downton, several members of the estate family volunteered for service and were killed in the war.  Many of them belonged to Highclere in a very personal way:  they were members of families that had served the estate and the Carnarvons for generations.

My only real complaints about this book are legalistic, so if you’re not one for getting all the tiniest details correct, you can skip this part.  The first, and biggest, error is not, I think, all the fault of its author.  Lady Carnarvon never makes the egregious mistake of referring to the wife of the 5th Earl, the Countess who is the biography’s subject, as “Lady Almina.”  (There seems to be some sort of general but erroneous belief that using “Lord” or “Lady” with the given name is an acceptable not-as-formal usage.  It is not.  The usage of Lady with the given name is allowed only to the daughters of dukes, marquesses, and earls, and is never used for the wives of peers.)  Unfortunately, not only does the title of the book brandish this error across the front cover, but it appears even in the back cover blurbs about the book and its author (who is not “Lady Fiona”), and some of the photo captions.  I think these prove that authors ultimately have very little control over the covers of their books.

However, there is another mistake in the text that is on my list of pet peeves as well, and it occurs more than once so it is not just an isolated slip.  It concerns Almina’s parentage.  Almina’s father was Alfred de Rothschild.  He was, unfortunately, not married to her mother, whose husband lived apart from her at the time Almina was born.  But these facts did not make Almina “illegitimate.”  The only thing that word refers to is the marital status of a mother at the time of birth of her child.  It has nothing to do with the identity of the child’s biological father.  Almina’s mother was married, so even if everyone “knew” that her husband was not the biological father of her child, legally he was Almina’s father in every way, and she bore his surname.  And while it is true that Almina’s actual parentage was somewhat of a scandal, she herself was not beyond the pale.  Indeed, as the book recounts, she was presented at court and attended a state ball at Buckingham Palace as a debutante.  Her mother’s status, officially and socially, is less clear, but Almina remained close to both of her parents for their entire lives, and they were welcome at Highclere.

Overall, Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey is a good read on the light end of the modern biographical scale, perhaps intentionally reminiscent of the more chatty biographies popular during Alimna’s lifetime.

3.5 out of 5 Stars

Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey: The Lost Legacy of Highclere Castle, by The Countess of Carnarvon
Crown Publishing Group (2011)
Trade paperback (320) pages
ISBN: 978-0770435622
NOOK: ISBN: 978-0770435639
Kindle: ASIN: B0060AY7Z8

Laura A. Wallace a musician, attorney, and writer living in Southeast Texas.  She is a devotee of Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer and is the author of British Titles of Nobility:  An Introduction and Primer to the Peerage (1998).

© 2007 – 2012 Laura A. Wallace, Austenprose

The World of Downton Abbey, by Jessica Fellowes – A Review

The World of Downton Abbey, by Jessica Fellowes (2011)Season two of Downton Abbey has concluded and we are left in limbo until it returns next Fall in the UK and January 2013 in the US.

*deep sigh*

For those like myself, who have watched and re-watched every blessed minute, yet, just can’t get enough of the award winning ITV/PBS television mini-series and are in total Downton withdrawal, may I suggests this stunning full-color coffee table-sized book about the series, The World of Downton Abbey?

The publisher touts it as a “lavish look at the real world–both the secret history and the behind-the-scenes drama–of the spellbinding Emmy Award-winning Masterpiece TV series Downton Abbey.” This is no idle boast. From cover to cover this 303 page oversized-volume is packed with sumptuous full-color pictures of the production, the cast, historical connections and its shining star, Highclere Castle, the grand manor house in Hampshire where the series is filmed.

The author Jessica Fellowes is the niece of the series creator and writer Julian Fellowes. Not only does she have the inside scoop into the production of the series, she is also well qualified to write the text as a journalist and the former Deputy Editor of Country Life magazine. Equally important is the photographer Nick Briggs, who captures intimate and awe inspiring images of the production that send us back into memorable scenes or highlight costuming and scenery.

Organized into nine chapters: Family Life; Society; Change; Life in Service; Style; House & Estate; Romance; War; and Behind the Scenes, each chapter is written in context to the series characters and their roles and included pertinent quotes from the screenplay illustrating key scenes and events in the series”

‘I mean, one way or another, everyone goes down the aisle with half the story hidden.’ Violet, The Dowager Countess

There are also quotes from the actors and actresses about their characters:

‘There’s an independence about Mary – she’s not influenced by anyone and she’s very much her own person, she makes her own decisions. I understand her because I’m one of three girls too and I’ve always been defiant that I didn’t want to do what they did.’ Michelle Dockery

…and from the creator:

‘There’s an element of performance. They were all performing a role that had been decreed for them. For and aristocrat to be convincing, he must look like an aristocrat.’ Julian Fellowes

I particularly enjoyed the insights from the costume designer Susannah Buxton on her research influences for the clothing and the historical vignettes that linked the series to actual period personalities such as Daisy, Countess of Warwick, and Mary Leiter, an American buccaneer that inspired Julian Fellowes to create the character of Cora Levinson who married Robert, the future Earl of Grantham in 1889.

Overall, the most spectacular impression from this volume is its sheer bulk and beauty. Any Downtonite, Edwardian historian, or period drama lover could get lost in this volume for days. Creator Julian Fellowes rightfully opens the book with a brief forward, offering us insights and asides, yet, I felt quite cheated that Violet, The Dowager Countess of Grantham was not given the last word.

4.5 out of 5 Stars

The World of Downton Abbey, by Jessica Fellowes
St Martin’s Press (2011)
Hardcover (304) pages
ISBN: 978-1250006349

 

Cover image courtesy of St. Martin’s Press © Carnival Film & Television Limited 2012 for MASTERPIECE