The Countess of Carnarvon is golden, healthy, sporty and jolly, with such a charmingly retro way about her, she puts me in mind of John Betjeman’s famous paean to the tennis-plying Miss Joan Hunter Dunn, “furnish’d and burnish’d by Aldershot sun”. Her voice is creamy and rich, and she has a ready, robust laugh that gurgles up and explodes in an appealing way. She has a fresh, rather original way of looking at things, and you get the feeling she’d be a good person to have around if you were in a jam. There’s also something of a slightly eccentric bluestocking about her, with her unusually old-fashioned enthusiasms.
She is only in her late 40s, for instance, but her idea of a hit song is Panis Angelicus (by St Thomas Aquinas, 1225–74). When I ask her whether she was ever contemporary in terms of her clothes or cultural interests, say, when she was a schoolgirl in the early 80s, she replies, “I wouldn’t say I was!” before roaring with laughter. “Well, there was Abba and maybe Les Mis, later on. But I’m not very good at that sort of thing. At St Paul’s, I was more of a bookworm – books and sport.”
Her passions are riding, croquet, a certain corner of Cornwall, biographies, history and... dictionaries. “My husband,” she says, with a mirthful mouthful of smoked-salmon sandwich, “is so kind, he puts up with me.” When she talks about the eighth Earl of Carnarvon, Geordie Herbert, her husband and the Queen’s godson, quoting something he’s said, she tends to adopt a comically glum, slightly Kevin the teenager mumble, so much so that I ask her if he really does talk like that. “No, he doesn’t,” she giggles. “He’s got a very nice voice – it’s just that I’m eternally optimistic and he’s someone who’s a bit more realistic.” Is he Eeyore to your Tigger? “No, because if he was Eeyore, we wouldn’t still be here!”
We’re sitting in a pretty, spring-like, feminine room of relatively modest proportions compared to some of the rooms I’ve walked through on the way – which are spectacular in both size and furnishings. I’ve had Napoleon’s desk pointed out to me by Lady C’s personal assistant, who is young and hippyish with a tattoo and a relaxed, cheerful manner. We look out on the rolling lawns of Highclere Castle – familiar to viewers as the setting of Downton Abbey – with the ancient cedars beyond, a folly in the distance.
On one wall is a luminous portrait of a pale- faced woman, with a 20s bob, wearing a white silk dress, with a fabulous chunky jewel- encrusted bangle. This is the American-born Lady Catherine, Geordie’s grandmother, who divorced the sixth Earl of Carnarvon, the philandering Porchey.
She’s the subject of the present Lady Carnarvon’s new book, Lady Catherine and the Real Downton Abbey, covering the years 1922 up to the end of the Second World War – follow- ing on from her bestselling Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey, the story of Porchey’s mama, the illegitimate daughter of the banking tycoon, Alfred de Rothschild, who married the fifth Earl and whose wealth saved the great house from ruin.
I’ve been brought tea in a pot and my hostess is drinking several cappuccinos. Has she got a Nespresso machine? “Yes, we have now. We used to rent them and my husband would send them back to save money and I’d say, ‘I don’t drink a huge amount and I don’t smoke and I think we can have one here and keep it for ourselves!’” Peals of laughter. So is her husband one of those incredibly frugal aristos? “Well, I’m quite Scottish, so between the two of us..!”
Lady C is the oldest of six daughters, names, in descending order: Fiona, Sarah, Lucina, Alexandra, Penelope and Georgiana. Most of the sisters are married, and all of them have had careers, but it is she who’s nabbed Mr Darcy. “Oh, my husband really doesn’t like Mr Darcy because every man feels he fails…” A big giggle. Well, just get hi into a fluffy white shirt and chuck him into the lake! “He gets so much teasing about that. It’s hopeless. I only have to say a new film is by Jane Austen, and he’ll say, ‘Oh my God! I’m not going to see that!’ It’s a complete turn-off for him – he just doesn’t want to go there.”
The couple met at a charity dinner, when they were seated next to one another, in 1996. Geordie was working in a computer business in London; Lady C was an accountant with PricewaterhouseCoopers. He was still feeling sad after the end of his short-lived first marriage, which had produced a daughter, Saoirse, now 22, and a son, George, who turns 21 on 13 October and will eventually become the ninth Earl of Carnarvon.
The two dinner guests bonded over their love of First World War poetry. Afterwards George Herbert, as he was then, sent Fiona Aitken a book of poetry, which she still has. “I thought he was very gentle, very interesting and very well- read – and just a very charming man,” she says thoughtfully. As the relationship went on, her future husband passed the ultimate Aitken family test one Christmas in Cornwall, of being able to dance on the dining table without knocking the candles over, while another guest sang instantly composed ditties on the piano.
Lady Carnarvon’s upbringing sounds like something from another era. Her father, who worked in the city, had a series of Bentleys called Boris, and the family would travel en masse with Queenie, the cook in tow, as well as Nannie, to their holidays in Cornwall in a house that belonged to friends. “It was a lovely way to grow up – very much in the outdoors. Loads of friends would come down and stay, and there’d be 20 of us for lunch, with Queenie cooking jam roly-poly and spotted dick.”
She continues, “There was no wi-fi, although there was eventually a television in the sitting room. We used to play racing demon and my mother used to write little plays, which were so embarrassing. My sisters liked to perform them but I didn’t.”
“After Dad died, often one of the most important things was cooking some delicious pasta, and opening a bottle of red wine in the evening... and that got us through the end of the day...” she stops for a moment and cannot go on. “Sorry. Sometimes when I talk about him...” It’s human. “Well, I’m definitely very human and imperfect and nothing wrong with that, but it’s part of what forms you in a sense, isn’t it? It’s things like that which hopefully make you more understanding and better with other people.”
I wonder how much of an adjustment it was for her to become lady of the manor? After all, it wasn’t exactly a life she was prepared for. Her father, whom she describes as a historian manqué, brought up his daughters to be financially independent: “He was very bright and expected us not to be completely twittish and to try to contribute. The sense of honour and duty and humility and humour... these were things that he tried to inculcate in us and you do a lot of that through reading. It was a bookish household. I would give him a book on Rommel for Christmas, and when I got into St Paul’s, his present to me was an encyclopedia.”
She decided to train as an accountant to gain a transportable skill: “I thought it was important that I would always have something to do, otherwise you go around in circles, like Bridget Jones – just waiting for someone to come around.
“Then, you know, along comes a man you love, who is kind and heavenly so you marry him and then later on you find you’ve married a house! It hadn’t occurred to me when we met because Geordie’s father was hale and hearty and after that you have the passion and the love and the heart – which I think is important – to keep going with the house but also because you’re one step removed, it allows you to observe things from slightly further off.”
She had stayed in large houses before and turned up at shooting parties, so it wasn’t a completely new world to her. Watching her mother run a household – albeit a flat in Westminster, rather than a castle – was helpful, as was witnessing her kindness towards people: “She would always make sure that older people who’d retired were all right – it was the small things you remember that mattered.” So is she very noblesse oblige? “Not in an upstairs-downstairs way – but I think if somebody’s upset then they need a hug.”
Does she have any snobberies? “Well, I hope not, but my sisters would probably tell me if I were to say something particularly foolish.”
Does it take a particular kind of woman, does she think, to inhabit her role, and how would she define it? “I would put it the other way round – I think, as you inhabit your role, you define it yourself. I learn a little bit more each day from the people I’m working with who have been here much longer – Diana, the housekeeper, has been here 25 years and other people have been here for 50 years. I’m not trying to dictate to them but in the end I am responsible – and we’re trying to create the income here to continue to employ them, and they completely get that so we’re all in it together.”
Their son Edward is 13. Does it bother him that he won’t inherit the title when his father dies? “He’s not in the least bothered. He wants to live in a modern house in London with no clutter. He’s a very grounded, funny boy who is smart and very kind – and he’s completely unfussed about it.”
And so, with the start of series four, to Downton. Does she watch it? “On TV, do you mean?” Another giggle. “I enjoy watching it more when I’m on a plane away from home.” Who is your favourite character?
“Highclere Castle... got that one off pat.” I’m going to push you – who is your favourite character or plot line? “I thought the Sybil scene [dying shortly after childbirth] was superb – although I do remember talking to John, our castle manager, on the other side of the gallery and saying, ‘How many more screams, do you think? It’s seven o’clock’ – so you remember things like that.”
After her latest book, Lady Carnarvon plans to go backwards and research the building of the house by Charles Barry, and Disraeli arriving in his carriage and commenting as he progressed through the grounds: “How scenical!” She’s also working on a book about the trees of Highclere and another one on the history of cooking there, with recipes – not so much a cottage industry but a castle industry, and it’s all about making her contribution to ensure the survival of the estate.
“I think with this house, you’re here for a short time, and you do your best,” she says, finally. “I don’t agonise or faff but you obviously get worried when things go wrong because the people who work here are very precious to me, and my husband is very precious to me and we’re trying to see where this magic carpet of Downton and the books leads us.”
Lady Catherine and the Real Downton Abbey by the Countess of Carnarvon (hodder & stoughton, £20) is available for £17 incl p&p. To order call the RT Bookshop on 01603 648176 or visit radiotimes.com/bookshop