by Melinda Creech
The season two finale for Downton Abbey, entitled “Christmas, 1919,” showcased a shooting party at Downton Abbey. As Alastair Bruce, historical advisor for Masterpiece, explains in a supplemental video, the shooting party had several purposes. Of utmost interest to the participants was the social import of the event. It was an opportunity to see and be seen by the elite of the society, and often required the tailoring of a new wardrobe. The harvesting of game during the shoot supported the community’s needs, providing Christmas gifts of food for the participants, residents of Highclere, and the staff. The shoot also contributed to the ecological balance of the one thousand acre estate.
Browning’s involvement in the shooting party is a little unclear. The Political Diaries of the Fourth Earl of Carnarvon, 1857-1890, Colonial Secretary and Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, edited by Peter Gordon (2009), indicates: “as a member of a shooting party there in 1873 Browning was able to claim in a single day 218 pheasants, 40 hares, 20 rabbits, and 1 partridge.” Gordon obtained this information from a letter from Robert Browning to Sarianna Browning, dated November 20, 1873. However, Browning writes to his sister, Sarianna, that “the main party of men are gone out to shoot” while he has “been walking in the park and after luncheon, shall begin again.” As almost a postscript in the last line of the letter he adds: “5 o’clock/ Day’s sport, (5 guns)—218 pheasants, 40 hares, 20 rabbits, 1 partridge.”
Whether as an attendee or a participant, Browning, no doubt, enjoyed the shooting party at Highclere, November 15-22,1873.