Patricia Sheridan's Sunday Brunch With .... Lady Fiona Carnarvon
January 6, 2013 10:00 AM
The Countess Fiona Carnarvon with the eighth Earl of Carnarvon George Herbert in front of Highclere Castle.
By Patricia Sheridan Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Lady Fiona Carnarvon, the eighth Countess of Highclere Castle, is also an author. Her latest book, "Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey: The Lost Legacy of Highclere Castle," has become popular with fans of the PBS Masterpiece series. She met her husband, Geordie Herbert, in 1996 and, after his father died in 2001, the couple took over the castle, where they live part of the time. A "Downton Abbey" party to benefit WQED will be held Jan. 24 at WQED Studios, Oakland. Tickets are $150. For details, go to www.wqed.org/downtonabbey.
Why write the book?
We ordered the first series of "Downton Abbey" hoping someone might like it and it might be successful and there might even be a second series. It was all quite relaxed. It obviously took off madly, and when the second series was coming around it was an opportunity to write about the house. I thought: I want to do something which tells our wonderful history, as well as that of "Downton Abbey." And to make something for the house in terms of money as well [laughing]. You know, it was a huge marketing opportunity.
Were you surprised by the interest in Highclere?
Yes, I definitely was. By the time I got to Christmas after the first series, I was personally completely exhausted and wiped out. It was nonstop. We all hoped it would work. It more than worked [laughing]. It became a phenomenon.
Since Highclere has become its own character, what is that like for you, living in this sort of celebrity castle?
I suppose we always thought we were quite well known, which we were. We were living in a home which was actually famous because of the connection to the discovery of [the tomb of Egyptian pharoah] Tutankhamun. In 1922-23 the Carnarvon family were at the center of that. It was actually regarded as the first global world media event. So we've been there, done that already [laughing]. So this, for us, is another run at it, which is wonderful.
Like "Downton Abbey," Highclere has served the public, being converted to a hospital in World War I.
Yes, it has, and the thing I felt really strongly about is that in "Downton Abbey" you are sort of outside looking in on a family which is sort of obsessed by some of the small details, like what [the footman] Thomas said to [the lady's maid Sarah] O'Brien. We're actually living here. It is what Geordie and I can do for other people. That is certainly what the fifth Earl and Almina did and what lots of Geordie's predecessors did. They were good people and went out there and contributed to other people's lives.
These big homes were run like little villages employing so many. Even today.
Exactly. It's a real community. I'm not quite sure I grasped all of this when I first started working here and looking after it with Geordie after his father died. It's all about the people. I know the house is there, but it's the people who love the house. Pat Withers, she decorates the rooms. She's decorated these rooms for 50 years, and you know what? Her father decorated these rooms before she did. I can talk to the keepers, and they can tell me what happened 60 years ago or what someone said 90 years ago because they knew the previous keeper.
Some of the story lines in "Downton Abbey" seem as if they came right from your book.
Our history is quite well known. It's been in guide books for ages, and everyone knew Almina had turned it into a hospital. Julian Fellowes [creator of "Downton Abbey"] turned it into a convalescent home, which is different and less gory and very successful for his second series. I am now hitting the '20s [in her writing] -- Almina goes into the 1920s, some of which is obviously the third series of the show. I'm proceeding on with another book which is the jazz clubs and nightclubs of London [laughing], with the Roaring '20s and the '30s with all the financial difficulties and the lighthearted flapper era. It is fascinating for me.
Has anything surprised you in your research?
I loved some of the downstairs stories I started to hear. I've got some more good stories for my next book about hilarious footmen and what they got up to, which I think is quite fun. I'm looking forward to writing them out and trying to make them three-dimensional people from the stories. Hopefully, I make you laugh and cry.
It is interesting to see how many of the actual furnishings of Highclere are used in "Downton Abbey."
Yes, I remember discussing it with Julian [Fellowes]. We thought if we are going to do it, let's do it. Having said that, some chairs are quite valuable, and we try and work out who can and can't sit where [laughing]. There are a few bits of furnishings we do take out. It works pretty well, and it's been lucky for us. When people come round, they can see where characters sat. I think there's an emotional attachment for viewers of the house, which I think is important.
Can you tell me a little bit more about the Fifth Earl's interest in the occult?
I think he was quite superstitious. What I found, which is extraordinary, is that Arthur Balfour, who was prime minister of Britain [1902-05], the fifth Earl's brother, was actually president of the [Society for Psychical Research] in Belgrave Square. So at that point in time, there was a tremendous interest in the occult and spiritual seances and things like that. The fifth Earl was very interested in Egypt and trying to work out what their culture and spirits were. It just makes you think about things in other ways. I think the church and Christianity mattered enormously to him. I suppose I read my stars every so often [laughing]. I've certainly had my palm read a couple of times for a bit of fun. Julian had a Ouija board with the downstairs people, didn't he [during an episode of "Downton Abbey"]? I remember trying to persuade my sisters that we could levitate someone.
In the book, you say the castle owns the family rather than the other way around.
I think I married a husband and a house and a way of life which has its own framework. It dictates my schedules in some way. Perhaps everyone's job does, but it dictates my free time as well because I don't have much [laughing]. It's quite all time-consuming. I enjoy challenges, which is definitely a good thing. Sometimes I do feel completely and utterly overwhelmed. I always say to my husband if I'm crying by 10 o'clock in the morning, I'm doing too bloody much. But I do so love all the life I think we have breathed back in. I think Almina and the fifth Earl would definitely recognize Highclere. I write and work in a study that he used to write and work in. I sit and write in the alcove as well on the top floor, and that's where his father the fourth Earl used to sit and write and translate his Latin and Greek texts. I love that continuity. The trees that George and I are planting, they are going to be wonderful in 150 years.
Isn't that a strange thought?
It is a strange thought, and perhaps somebody will be standing on the tower as I stood on it the other day, being really thrilled that we planted them. Eighty percent of the tourists who come to England want to visit one of the stately homes or castles. It's also very grounding. It is a visible sense of longevity in England.