The second season of Downton Abbey began here on PBS last night. I've been waiting forever for the new season, and the first night did not disappoint. If you aren't watching, it's a bit like Upstairs Downstairs, but set in the Edwardian era and featuring much more scandal and action.While waiting for the new episodes, I found the book Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey to keep me entertained. Downton Abbey is filmed at Highclere Castle, the home of the Earl and Countess of Carnarvon, and Lady Almina (written by the current Countess) looks at the life and times of the Edwardian era's Carnarvon family.
Featuring letters, diary entries, photographs, and memories of long-time servants and employees, the book tells the story of Lady Almina, a young woman who (like Cora Crawley on Downton) brought a huge fortune to her marriage with the 5th Earl Carnarvon. Almina was the illegitimate daughter of the fabulously wealthy Alfred de Rothschild, but the Carvarvons were willing to overlook that little fact as long as the money flowed in.
Luckily for Almina, she and her husband (known as Porchy) were in love and seemed to have had a successful marriage. Her money allowed the Earl to travel the world, and later to be involved in the famous opening of the King Tut tomb with Howard Carter.
But the better part of this book is when it focuses on Highclere, its inner workings, and the golden era of the Edwardians. That, for me, is the compelling part of Downton Abbey, too.
It would be impossible to focus on just a few servants in the book, the way the TV show does. Highclere Castle had a platoon of servants rather than the few shown on Downton. The Highclere staff even had a boy who did nothing but watch the bells from each room to ensure that he alerted the appropriate servant when services were required. After all, there were 66 bells that could ring at any time.
Unfortunately for Highclere, and for Downton, the Edwardian era ended with the start of World War I, when Highclere also served as a hospital, just as Downton Abbey will in the next episode. Photographs from that time show the Countess, her family, and her staff in nursing uniforms, entertaining young soldiers as they recuperated.
As you're watching Downton and you see the shots of that beautiful building, keep in mind that it truly was a home, housing a family and a household of servants that were clinging to an era that was quickly slipping away. As Matthew said on last night's show, "It seems like another world."