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 of 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

Downton Abbey’s Stunning Film Locations

Image of Highclere Castle, Hampshire, England

Season one of Downton Abbey on Masterpiece Classic PBS concludes this Sunday, January 30th. This new Edwardian-era period drama was incredibly popular when it first aired in the UK last Fall, and now is also a huge hit with North American audiences. Many viewers will be happy to know that a second season and Christmas special are in the works for Fall and December in the UK, and will probably air in the US in 2012.

Not only has screenwriter Julian Fellowes given us a brilliant script, the costumes and film locations are stunning. Please welcome guest blogger Abby Stambach, whose lovely blog Nooks, Towers and Turrets features information and commentary on historic homes and stately architectural highlights. She has graciously offered a tour of film locations used in Downton Abbey.

As someone who loves historic places, I am always curious about the locations used in historic films or mini-series. I always want to believe that the homes used in my favorite films are real and not some creation on a studio’s back lot. I had high hopes for the locations used in Downton Abbey when I first saw the trailer. I was not disappointed when I found that the series was filmed at the historic Highclere Castle and the village of Bampton.

Highclere Castle circa Georgian-era

The Crawley estate was brought to life at Highclere Castle in the county of Hampshire. It sits on 1,000 acres of parkland and it has been the country seat of the Earls of Carnarvon since 1679. During the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Henry Herbert, the 1st Earl of Carnarvon made many improvements to the building transforming it to a Georgian mansion. I was surprised to find that Highclere Castle is only about 30 miles from Jane Austen’s childhood home in Steventon. It appears as if the Austen and Carnarvon families’ social circles crossed paths since Jane mentioned the Carnarvon family in a letter she wrote to her sister, Cassandra between October 25 and 27, 1800. Jane wrote:

This morning we called at the Harwood’s & in their dining room found Heathcote & Chute forever – Mrs. Wm. Heathcote & Mrs. Chute – the first of whom took a long ride in to LordCarnarvons Park and fainted away in the evening…

In the mid-nineteenth century, Highclere Castle was remodeled again into the Elizabethan Castle that is seen in Downton Abbey. Sir Charles Barry is responsible for the design and it was completed in 1878.

Design for Highclere Castle, study of Elizabethan style by Sir Charles Barry (1842)Design for Highclere Castle, study of Elizabethan style
by Sir Charles Barry (1842) from Christie’s

The re-modeled home is in the Elizabethan style. This style was dominant in England during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. It takes many elements from the Dutch and Italian Renaissance styles and is known for its symmetrical layouts, curved gables and long galleries. When Highclere was remodeled in the 19th-century, there was a Renaissance revival and Elizabethan architecture became fashionable once again.

The grounds and several rooms of Highclere Castle are featured throughout Downton Abbey. The salon, library, dining room and entrance hall are seen frequently. The scenes taking place in the servants’ living quarters were not filmed at Highclere but rather at Ealing Studios. It was necessary to build the servants quarters from scratch because the quarters used by servants in the early 20th-century are either gone, or greatly changed. The production crew took great care in making the transitions from the rooms of Highclere to the servants’ quarters look real.

The Secret Garden at Highclere Castle

The castle sits on 1,000 acres of parkland designed in the 18th-century by the famous landscape gardener, Lancelot Brown. The gardens closest to the castle are called the Monks’ Garden. This name comes from the Bishops of Winchester who owned the land for 800 years before the Carnarvon family. There is even a Secret Garden with an arboretum within the Monks’ Garden.

The scenes taking place in Downton village were filmed in the town of Bampton in the county of Oxfordshire. Bampton was chosen because it “provided an authentic backdrop close to London.” Producer Nigel Marchant also said that “Bampton is perfect because it is so well preserved, and you hardly need to do anything in terms of alterations.” It is one of the oldest villages in England and its history can be traced to the Iron Age. The village also appears in the Domesday Book of 1086.

Aerial view of Brampton, Oxfordshire

During the 18th-century, Bampton flourished and many buildings throughout the village were built during the course of the century. There were also a many shops by the middle of the 18th-century making the village self-sufficient even though roads and bridges were built in order to connect it to the surrounding towns and villages. Bampton continued to flourish and by the early 19th-century, Bampton was a village of contrasts with wealthy landowners, middle class farmers, shopkeepers and people living in poverty.

Brampton Library used for the hospital in Downton Abbey (2010)

Several buildings in Bampton were used for filming. Lord Grantham patrons the hospital in Downton and the series has many scenes taking place in the hospital. The exterior of the Bampton Library became the entrance of the hospital and the interior scenes were filmed elsewhere.

Brampton house used as the Crawley's home in Downton Abbey (2010)

Another building served as the exterior of Matthew Crawley and his mother’s Downton home. Once again, the interior scenes were filmed on another location in Buckinghamshire.

Brampton residence used as the Dower House in Downton Abbey (2010)

This is the Dower House, residence of Violet, the Dowager Countess of Grantham. It is in the Georgian style and could easily be used in a Jane Austen adaptation.

In episode two, we see Matthew Crawley and Lady Edith tour a local church. These scenes were filmed at St. Mary’s Church in Bampton. This church was a part of an ancient parish within an Anglo-Saxon royal estate and there is archeological evidence that suggests a church was on the site before the Norman Conquest. However, the earliest surviving document records the gift of the church to Leofric, Bishop of Exeter and the Church of Peter by William the Conqueror. It is likely that the original church was destroyed by fire in 1142 and the present day building was built beginning in 1153.  The church was remodeled in 1270 when the spire and aisles were added.

St. Mary's Church in Brampton, Oxfordshire used in the filming of Downton Abbey (2010)

The production crew did a magnificent job in choosing sites that make Downton Abbey and the village of Downton come to life. They are simply gorgeous and help create the perfect atmosphere for the story.

Abby is the creator/editor of Nooks, Towers and Turrets, a blog honoring historic architecture. She fell in love with old houses when she was a little girl going to house museums with her family. She then worked as a tour guide at Schuyler Mansion State Historic Site for many summers. When she isn’t blogging or visiting house museums, she working to finish her masters degree.

Downton Abbey continues on Sunday, January 30th at 9:00 pm ET (check local listings). Don’t miss the final episode.

Links/sources/further reading

Image of Highclere Castle courtsey of ©MASTERPIECE and CARNIVAL FILMS; text © 2011 Abby Stambach, Austenprose.com