Monday, 26 November 2012

The World of Downton Abbey and The Buccaneers

It is impossible to follow "Downton Abbey" without associating it with the world of rich American heiresses who came to England to marry, and rescue with their money, ancestral houses and titles ... as described in "The Buccaneers", the last unfinished work of Edith Wharton ...

You may be surprised by the many similarities between the plot of Downton Abbey and the history of the Highclere Castle and the Carnarvon family. Julian Fellowes, the writer of Downton Abbey, is life-long friend of the Carnarvons and used bits of family history as inspiration. One of the more striking similarities is between Cora Crawley  and Almina Carnarvon.

As the result of the rapid industrialization of the late 19th century, a new upper class was created in the United States. It was almost impossible for the "new money" to integrate themselves into the established American upper class due to the attitudes of the established old money. Beginning in the late 1870s, the new American heiresses began to turn to Britain to find suitable husbands in the aristocracy. At the time, the British upper class was land-rich but were running out of money. They were in desperate need of cash in order to run their vast estates. They gladly turned to the new American money so they could avoid losing their family estates. In Britain, the rules of inheritance was based on primogeniture and property was almost exclusively passed to the eldest male. In the United States, property was usually spilt between children, enabling women were able to inherit large sums of money.  For fifty years, there were many marriages between British aristocrats and American heiresses. These new members of the British aristocracy were referred to as Buccaneers. By 1900, it was estimated that about a quarter of the British House of Lords had an American connection.

As the first installment of Downton Abbey revealed, Cora, an American heiress, married Lord Grantham for her money. Cora was the daughter of a dry goods millionaire and a member of "new money" American class. When she married Lord Grantham, the estate of Downton Abbey was near financial ruin. Afterwards, Cora's large dowry and later large inheritance, was tied up in an entail (see this post on Austenprose for info). Though the the marriage was initially one out of convenience, it grew into a love match as seen in the series.
In the book, The World of Downton Abbey, it is stated that Cora was inspired by the real-life Buccaneer, Lady Curzon. However, there are several parallels to Lady Almina Carnavorn, real life chatelaine of Highclere. In the late 19th century, the 5th Earl of Carnarvon was in serious debt, about 150,000 pounds. He owned 6,000 acres from four estates, including Highclere Castle. At the time, Highclere was in poor shape due to the large amount of money required to maintain the house. In 1895, Lord Carnarvon married Almina Wombwell, an heiress with access to an enormous amount of cash. Officially, Almina was the daughter Marie and Fred Wombwell but she was rumored to be the love child of Marie and Alfred de Rothschild. Rothschild was a wealthy banking tycoon. Unlike the social norm, he did not shun his illegitimate daughter and only child. Instead, he provided his "god-daughter" with a sizable dowry and eventually, inheritance. Almina had many suitors as a result. Once married, Rothschild not only provided a large dowry, but he also gave the couple a substantial annual allowance. Rothschild's money paid for Highclere's expenses and it also provided money for the couple to maintain several other homes as well as fund the Earl's Egyptian adventures in the 1920s. Initially, Almina was looked down upon by society.  She eventually won society over and her husband through "her wit, brave spirit and fabulous dresses."

While there are some differences between the stories of Almina and Cora, there are several parallels. Both women married into the British aristocracy because of their money and were responsible for saving the estate from severe financial ruin.
Posted 10th January by Abby in

Remains of the Days
Three Books Explore the Reality Behind the World of ‘Downton Abbey’
Published: February 3, 2012 in The New York Times
The British costume drama “Downton Abbey,” shown here on PBS, is now unfurling in all its magnificence, and I, like its millions of American fans, will again be reminded of what it would take for my life to be truly suitable:
— Everything brought to me on a silver salver.

— Breakfast in bed daily, because I am a married woman and that is my prerogative.

— A steward’s room boy whose entire job it is to watch a panel of bells, each connected to a different room in the house from which I might ring for service. Since I live in a 1,500-square-foot co-op, this isn’t such a bad job.

— The soles of my shoes polished.

— My newspaper ironed.

— My sheets ironed.

— My shoelaces ironed.

Until “Downton Abbey,” I never realized how many of my deepest desires involved ironing. True, it would also be nice to have a great deal of furtive sex with my social inferiors, preferably in crinolines. But at this point, I’d settle for a crisp newspaper.

I know I should feel guilty about my cravings for these things. But that’s the beauty of shows like “Downton Abbey” and its venerable ancestor “Upstairs, Downstairs”: the lives of the gentry are filled with so much intrigue, excruciating protocol and silent suffering that it would be churlish to resent their unimaginably comfortable existence.

And there’s another draw for Americans, particularly in an election year. We continue to labor under the delusion that we live in a class-free society — that social mobility is a birthright, not a remote possibility. If we’re not continually upgrading our circumstances, as Newt Gingrich reminds us, it’s our own damn fault. We are expected to be “Oprah”-ishly self-actuating and self-improving, and only sloth prevents us from achieving spiritual clarity and financial success. How perversely comforting, then, to turn our attention to a world where you will die where you are born and where the heroes are the rare overachievers who work their way up to butler from footman.

The merchant class, which is to say the publishing industry, is mining the popularity of “Downton Abbey” with the release and re-release of two books that inspired the show, and the inevitable companion volume to the TV series (inevitably titled “The World of Downton Abbey”). One memoir is written from the point of view of upstairs, one from downstairs. See if your keen discerning eye can spot the difference:

“Highclere was a symbiotic system, and mutual respect was the key to its success. The fifth Earl prided himself on an Old World courtesy, and that set the tone for the entire household. He took an interest in the well-being of the staff and the cottagers on the estate; often a donation would be made towards a fund for a tenant whose livestock had died, and money was also made available for the staff to have medical treatment.”

“On Christmas Day after breakfast all the servants had to line up in the hall. . . . Mr. and Mrs. Cutler, and the daughter and the grandchildren, were assembled complete with Christmas smiles and social welfare expressions. The children looked at us as though we were beings from another world. . . . When we got to the Christmas tree we deferentially accepted the parcels that were handed to us by the children, and muttered, ‘Thank you, Master Charles, thank you, Miss Susan.’ ”

The first selection, from “Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey,” is written by the former fashion designer Fiona Aitken, now the eighth Countess of Carnarvon. She and her husband, the earl, are the current residents of Highclere, the 1,000-acre Hampshire estate that, not surprisingly, resembles Parliament, considering they share an architect, Charles Barry. Highclere is also the filming location of “Downton Abbey.”

The countess’s book tells the story of the beautiful and diminutive “Pocket Venus,” Almina Victoria Marie Alexandra Wombwell, who lived at Highclere from 1895 to 1923 with her husband, George Edward Stanhope Molyneux Herbert, fifth Earl of Carnarvon. He is best known as the co-discoverer of King Tutankamen’s tomb — after a series of expeditions financed by Almina. Because, like many aristocratic families of the time, the Carnarvons were long on lineage and short on cash. So he did what every self-respecting gadabout did: look for an heiress who could rescue him, and his family pile, from ruin.

Enter Almina, for Burke’s Peerage the child of Capt. Frederick Charles Wombwell and Marie Boyer but rumored to be the illegitimate daughter of Sir Alfred de Rothschild. A director of the Bank of England for 20 years and the first Jew ever to hold that position, Rothschild doted on his “godchild” and made it known that he was prepared to give her a “fortune” on her marriage. He also wanted to solidify both her standing in society and his own. He paid up Lord Carnarvon’s debts and settled on her a sum of £12,000 (roughly $1.5 million in today’s currency) a year. Almina proceeded to turn Highclere into a social epicenter of Edwardian England.

When World War I broke out, the perfect society lady became the perfect nurse, opening her home to the wounded and transforming it into a hospital. Loyal servants who wanted to go off and fight were promised that their jobs would be available upon their return. Does oblige ever get more noblesser? When Lord Carnarvon died, allegedly of a mosquito bite and blood poisoning, a pall fell over the dozens of grieving servants. At least this is the eighth countess’s story. Almina was a woman of great charm and courage, and the family universally beloved.

This account differs somewhat from that in a biography of Lady Almina that came out last year. William P. Cross’s “Life and Secrets of Almina Carnarvon” tells of a woman who traded her money for a prestigious but arid marriage, took lovers young and old (including her husband’s best man) and burned through Rothschild’s dowry, leaving her feckless son enraged and penniless when he finally inherited the estate. Lady Almina did, in fact, open her home to the wounded, and went on to open a series of tony nursing homes (and discreet abortion clinics) for the rich and famous. But the homes never paid for themselves, and she and her second husband, a military officer named Ian Dennistoun, whom she married a few months after Lord Carnarvon’s death, ended up in bankruptcy court. Almina died in greatly reduced circumstances in Bristol in 1969, at the age of 93.

I suspect the real story of the relationship of servants to their masters is more accurately told by Margaret Powell, in her simple and quite brilliant “Below Stairs.” Here she throws the last shovel of dirt on the myth of the devoted help and their unfailing love and respect for the stately home. Powell notes that G. K. Chesterton “wrote about the malignity of inanimate objects,” and then adds that she thinks “they are malign because they take up so much of my time dusting, polishing and cleaning them.”

First published in England in 1968, Powell’s memoir was an inspiration for the classic television series “Upstairs, Downstairs.” She recalls her years “in service” from the time she was a desperately poor girl from a family of seven, growing up in a few rented rooms in Hove, to her years working long days as a kitchen maid and eventually cook in the houses of the good and the great. Apparently she was sufficiently immune to the charms of her employers to seek escape through marriage, children and higher education. “Below Stairs” was a hit, and Powell went on to write other books about her experiences. But perhaps none were quite so powerful as this one, which describes in simple and often excruciating detail the divide between Us and Them. “We always called them ‘Them,’ ” Powell writes. “ ‘Them’ was the enemy, ‘Them’ overworked us, and ‘Them’ underpaid us, and to ‘Them,’ servants were a race apart, a necessary evil.” In those carefree days before nondisclosure agreements, it was assumed by everyone that “what they upstairs did, although it was a subject of scandal and gossip and laughter, was their privilege. Not because they were better than us, but because they had money and it was no good having money if you couldn’t deviate from the norm.”

What makes Powell such a credible narrator is the fact that she’s never reflexively bitter or nasty. When she worked for a family that treated her with kindness and without condescension, she was deeply grateful and desperate to please. These families were rare. More common were those that showed their utter disregard for the servants by practicing necessary “economies” on the staff, monitoring their food and furnishing their rooms with broken castoffs. As the arbiters of morality for the help, a girl’s employers could dismiss her for paying too much attention to her appearance, since there was a slippery slope from wearing makeup to having an out-of-wedlock child (cause for immediate dismissal, of course, without pay and indeed, usually, without anyplace to go). In one home, Powell was excoriated for passing the day’s mail to the lady of the house by hand: “Tears started to trickle down my cheeks; that someone could think that you were so low that you couldn’t even hand them anything out of your hands without it first being placed on a silver salver.”

Well. It made me kind of rethink my whole silver salver fantasy. Though I still want my sheets ironed.

All these years later, “Below Stairs” retains its peculiar fascination. Powell does nothing to romanticize poverty or domestic service, and considers the few servants who Stockholmishly identified with their masters as jack­asses. But she also makes us understand that service could be tolerable and, in some cases, almost pleasant. There’s a certain freedom from stricture, at least in your life outside work, and a certain pleasure in knowing you’re a capable person, while the people you serve are not.

Later in her career, Powell had occasion to work for older ladies in reduced circumstances — perhaps ladies like Lady Almina. “I can’t help thinking that people who were once wealthy and now have to live on a fixed income are worse off than ordinary working-class people,” she observes, while “people who are living on fixed incomes like these old ladies have got to keep on trying to keep up some sort of show.” And that, perhaps more than anything, is what united servant and master. Not love, not admiration, not even fear — but a certain measure of pity. That man standing at attention in the white gloves may be feeling just a little bit sorry for you.

Judith Newman is the author of “You Make Me Feel Like an Unnatural Woman: Diary of a New (Older) Mother.

By Jessica Fellowes
Illustrated. 303 pp. St. Martin’s Press. $29.99.
The Lost Legacy of Highclere Castle
By the Countess of Carnarvon
Illustrated. 310 pp. Broadway. Paper, $15.99.
The Classic Kitchen Maid’s Memoir That Inspired “Upstairs, Downstairs” and “Downton Abbey.”
By Margaret Powell
212 pp. St. Martin’s Press. $22.99.

The Glitter and the Gold
Author: Consuelo Vanderbilt Balsan
For fans of Downton Abbey, this is the riveting real-life story of the Vanderbilt heiress who married the Duke of Marlborough in 1895. A fascinating insight into upstairs-downstairs life and the highest circles of Edwardian aristocracy.
Consuelo Vanderbilt was young, beautiful and the heir to a vast family fortune. She was also deeply in love with an American suitor when her mother chose instead for her to fulfil her social ambitions and marry an English Duke. Leaving her life in America, she came to England as the Duchess of Marlborough in 1895 and took up residence in her new home - Blenheim Palace.The 9th Duchess gives unique first-hand insight into life at the very pinnacle of English society in the Edwardian era. An unsnobbish, but often amused observer of the intricate hierarchy both upstairs and downstairs at Blenheim Palace, she is also a revealing witness to the glittering balls, huge weekend parties and major state occasions she attended or hosted. Here are her encounters with every important figure of the day - from Queen Victoria, Edward V11 and Queen Alexandra to Tsar Nicholas, Prince Metternich and the young Winston Churchill.This intimate, richly enjoyable.

Because of their "new money" background, four American girls have difficulty breaking into the upper-crust society of New York. Laura Testvalley, the governess of one of the girls, suggests a London season and thus the young women set sail for England and the unsuspecting English aristocracy. In England, all the girls soon find eligible husbands and the youngest girl, Nan, seems to land the best husband of them all: the handsome and very wealthy Julius, Duke of Trevennick. Nan and Julius meet for the first time in a ruin, which is an indication of where their marriage is soon heading. After the nuptials, Julius seems more interested in clocks and stable boys than Nan's happiness, and all the girls soon discover that English upper-class men are not at all what they expected and hoped for.

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