by Melinda Creech
The conversations at Downton Abbey propel the plot and leave us curious to know how the relationships will unravel or be knit together. Of course, many of the most interesting conversations occur in the hallways and behind doors in the servants’ quarters. However, some take place when the men gather by themselves after the meal in the smoking room. Others unfold as the visitors and residents stroll across the lovely grounds of Highclere Castle.Robert Browning found himself engaged in these conversations. The Political Diaries of the Fourth Earl of Carnarvon, edited by Peter Gordon (2009), contends that “Carnarvon’s greatest pleasure . . . was discussing literary matters with distinguished authors.” The conversations in the smoking room, according to Thomas Hay Sweet Escott in Anthony Trollope: His Public Services, Private Friends, and Literary Originals (1967) sometimes involved Browning and often focused on the literature of the Classics. The smoking room clientele included Lord Carnarvon, Browning, Anthony Trollope, J. R. Green, J. R. Seeley, Charles Kingsley, and H. P. Liddon and resembled “Cicero’s country-house parties at his Tusculum.”
Browning, however, also enjoyed those strolling conversations on the grounds. Lady Knightley in The Journals of Lady Knightley of Fawsley, edited by Julia Mary Cartwright (1915), has this recollection of a conversation with Browning at Highclere.
Talking to remarkable people is certainly very hard work! Here I have been divided between Count Beust and Mr. Browning nearly all day. The occupation, amusement, or whatever you like to call it, has been a walk and luncheon at a little house by a lovely lake. Mr. Browning is as different from his poems as anything one can imagine — a loud-voiced, sturdy little man, who says nothing in the least obscure or difficult to understand!
Perhaps it was just such conversations that caused Robert’s weariness as described by his sister, Sarianna Browning, in a letter dated December 1, 1869, to her dear friend in Paris, Joseph Milsand. She says: “Robert is with the earl of Carnarvon at Highclere castle since Saty [Saturday]. He will stay a few days longer but soon gets wearied.”
How delightful to imagine Robert Browning sitting in the smoking room at Highclere discussing Homer, strolling the grounds unveiling his poetry to Lady Knightley, or participating in a shooting party.
Be sure to check back later this week for the next installment in the Browning at Downton Abbey series!