Browning at Downton Abbey: Fathers and Children

by Melinda Creech

A photo of Matthew Crawley holding his newborn baby in Downton Abbey

Matthew Crawley of Downton Abbey (portrayed by Dan Stevens) holds his son. Photo courtesy of iTV.

Viewers were upset and angered when Matthew Crawley died at the end of the season just after holding his new-born son in his arms. Julian Fellowes, the creator of Downton Abbey, explained his decision in an interview with the New York Times blog. Dan Stevens, the actor playing Matthew Crawley, decided to leave the show and having him die in a tragic accident seemed the best way to remove a major character from the story line.

Although the father and son story in Downton Abbey had a sad ending, the real story of fathers and children at Highclere Castle is a little more heartening. Robert Browning and Henry Howard Molyneux Herbert, Fourth Earl of Carnarvon, seemed to have a mutual admiration for each other. Many of the letters from Lord Carnarvon to Robert Browning in the Armstrong Browning Library collection are simply personal invitations for Browning to come to Highclere. Robert Browning’s sister, Sarianna, confided in a letter to Joseph Milsand, November 1869, that “Robert writes me he feels tired of the life he is leading—and has declined another invitation somewhere. Still, he has accepted Ld Carnarvon’s for the beginning of Decr.” In another letter to Sarianna on November 20, 1873, Browning says “Ld. Carnarvon was so exceedingly warm in his manner last evening,–kind he can’t help being.” So what connected Lord Carnarvon and Robert Browning?

Although they died within a few months of each other, Robert Browning was born nineteen years before Lord Carnarvon. They both married for the first time in their thirties and lost their wives after fourteen or fifteen years of marriage. Lord Carnarvon married again, and his second wife outlived him by forty years. Browning never remarried, but outlived his wife by almost thirty years.

Browning’s correspondence with the Carnarvons began in 1868 and continued until at least 1885. When this acquaintance began Lord Carnarvon was thirty-seven and had a four-year-old daughter and a two-year-old son. Robert Browning was fifty-six and had a nineteen-year-old son.

A photo of Robert and Pen Browning

Photo of Robert and Pen Browning (1869) from Armstrong Browning Library

Near the end of their acquaintance in 1885, Robert Browning was seventy-three and Pen was thirty-six. Lord Carnarvon was fifty-four and had five children: Winifred, (21), George (19), Margaret (15), Victoria (11), and Aubrey (5).

A photo of Lord Carnarvon and his son, Aubrey Herbert Carnarvon

Photograph of Lord Carnarvon and Aubrey (1885) from The Life of Henry Howard Molyneux Herbert, Fourth Earl of Carnarvon, 1831-1890, Vol. 3, by Arthur Henry Hardinge, 1925.

These two photographs present visual bookends for the beginning and the end of the relationship between Robert Browning and The Fourth Earl of Carnarvon. Both men faced death with a similar peaceful composure. According to The Political Diaries of the Fourth Earl of Carnarvon, 1857-1890, edited by Peter Gordon, Lord Carnarvon’s last words were “I am so happy.” A Browning Chronology by Martin Garrett reports that Robert Browning’s last words were “my son, my dear son.”

Resources are available for searching through the Browning correspondence online or through catalogues and documents in person here at the Armstrong Browning Library at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. Anyone with a modicum of curiosity can discover how the relationship between Robert Browning and Lord Carnarvon included shooting parties, trout-fishing excursions, late night literary discussions, comparisons of Greek translations, walks in the park, personal and political favors, delightful lunches, and extravagant dinners. Doubtless, some of the conversations at Highclere focused on the disappointments and joys of fathers and children.

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