by Melinda Creech
While preparing the letters of Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning to be digitized for the Baylor University Libraries Digital Collection, I made an interesting discovery. A letter in the Armstrong Browning Library’s Browning Letters Collection, dated June 23, 1868, was sent by Robert Browning to Lady Evelyn Carnarvon. The name might have slipped my attention and remained one of the hundreds of correspondents of Robert Browning with whom I have little or no knowledge, however, last fall I joined the ranks of the army of fans devoted to the weekly viewing of the affairs of Downton Abbey.
I had watched with rapt attention “The Secrets of Highclere Castle,” a historical account of Highclere, the real “Downton Abbey,” which aired on January 6 as a prequel to the first episode of the third season. The character Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham, living at Downton Abbey, is loosely based on George Edward Stanhope Molyneux Herbert, 5th Earl of Carnarvon, who resided at Highclere Castle. The 5th Earl of Carnarvon is best known as the financial backer of the search for and the excavation of Tutankhamun’s tomb in the Valley of the Kings. I was delighted to discover that Robert Browning was acquainted with his father, Henry Howard Molyneux Herbert, 4th Earl of Carnarvon; and in fact, Peter Gordon in The Political Diaries of the Fourth Earl of Carnarvon, records that “Robert Browning was often a welcome visitor at Highclere.”
According to Baylor’s online database The Brownings: A Research Guide, there are twenty-six Browning letters to or from the Carnarvons, one supporting document that mentions the Carnarvons in relation to the Brownings, and at least one other Victorian letter that refers to the Carnarvons but does not mention the Brownings specifically. An in-house Browning database indicates that there are seventy references to Highclere or the Carnarvons in the Browning letters and supporting documents, and the Armstrong Browning Library owns nineteen of those letters or supporting documents.
During the next few weeks I plan to investigate the letters and supporting documents to find out more about Robert Browning at “Downton Abbey.” Upcoming blogposts will include a description of a hunt at Highclere where Browning was a participant, a diary account of Lady Knightley of Fawsley’s conversations with Robert Browning at Highclere, and an account of a conversation between Trollope and Browning in the smoking-room at Highclere Castle.