Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Saint Augustine at Downton Abbey

For my scholarly writing last week I needed to consult very briefly a Latin text of Augustine’s Confessions.  My library is well supplied in that category.  I even have a prized signed presentation copy of the edition of that work—signed by the editor rather than the author, needless to say—but one doesn’t use fine Limoges for Chinese take-out, which in intellectual terms is roughly analogous to what I was up to.  So I plucked the nearest to hand, which turned out to be a crumbling school edition published  at Ratisbon (Regensburg) in 1894.  I must have bought it in Oxford about 1960, and I haven’t looked at it in years.  I quickly finished my pedestrian task, and then turned my attention to the physical book.  It seems to have cost me two shillings and sixpence and once belonged to “E. Courtney [?] from the library of Canon Claude Jenkins”.  This latter eminent gentleman once had been Regius Professor of Ecclesiastical History at Oxford.  But it was the elegant bookplate of a yet earlier owner that caught my eye and piqued my curiosity. 

Who was this Winifred Burghclere who would serve only ung and whose kinky emblem was a dragon-backed nun?  Like thousands of others in the Anglophone world we were caught up in the enthusiasm generated by the BBC television series Downton Abbey.  I was aware, too, that the actual great house used in its filming is Highclere Castle in Hampshire.  And the bit of philologist in me knew that the root meaning of burg—OE byrig, which shows up as the suffix –bury in so many English place names--is “fortified place” or “castle.”  Hence, the strange Burghclere might possibly mean “Castle Clere” or something like bright or shining castle.   So I thought there might be some connection with Highclere.  The odds were not good, but even a stopped clock gets it right twice a day; and in this instance philological phantasy leads to an interesting story.

The previous owner of my Augustine, Lady Winifred Anne Henrietta Christiana Herbert (1864-1933), was the daughter of the fourth Earl of Carnarvon and (eventually) the wife of Herbert Gardner, an important Liberal politician and (eventually) the first, last, and only Baron Burghclere of Walden.  Lady Winifred’s girlhood home was Highclere Castle—i.e., “Downton Abbey”!  She was very close to her slightly younger brother George (1866-1923), who before succeeding to his father’s title (Earl of Carnarvon) was titled Lord Portchester and known to his intimates as “Porchy”.

"Porchy" at his ease

“Porchy” must be remembered as one of the great eccentrics in the famously eccentric British aristocracy.  (Among the few failings of Downton Abbey is Lord Grantham’s want of eccentricity.)  Porchy was filthy rich and could indulge his passions.  He loved fast horses and fast cars.  Fast women seem not to have been his thing.  Their traditional role was filled by amateur Egyptology.  “Porchy” bankrolled several important digs, including most famously the work of his close friend Howard Carter, who in 1922 stumbled upon the tomb of Tutankhamen.   This was among the most sensational finds in the history of archaeology.   All the world marveled, but King Tut himself was not amused.  We have all heard about the “Curse of the Mummy” or the “Revenge of the Pharaoh”.  Some few months after the opening of the tomb a mosquito bite on Porchy’s lordly jowl, complicated by a razor nick, turned septic and killed him.  Lady Burghclere, a serious historian and a fine writer, has left us a beautiful, crisp, and moving memorial of her brother.  It is published as a preface to the wonderful book by Howard Carter and A. C. Mace on The Discovery of the Tomb of Tutankhamen.  It is a little gem, and finding it has fully justified the time spent wandering by the wayside of my ostensible current project.

Howard Carter examines the find 
There is yet more in this digression to interest an English professor.  Lord and Lady Burghclere had four daughters.   The youngest of them was named Evelyn—a name of importance in the Herbert family.  Actually her whole name was Evelyn Florence Margaret Winifred (1903-1994), but the most important part was the Evelyn.  That is because in 1928 she married a young British writer, destined for later fame, whose name was also Evelyn—Evelyn Waugh.  For a while this elfin couple cut quite a swath through the socio-literary upper crust as “He-Evelyn and She-Evelyn”.  But marriage is a fairly serious business, and the common ground in which it is rooted should probably be more than nominal.
He-Evelyn and She-Evelyn

The he and the she wandered apart, and I fear that the she wandered so far as a lover’s arms.  Waugh sued for divorce—with all the self-righteousness and ignominious rituals that the stolid law of that time required in such matters.  Some critics think this was the event that plunged Waugh into the depressive misanthropy that, at least in my opinion, colors so much of his work.  It perhaps also hastened his conversion to Roman Catholicism, which in turn required further legal shenanigans, this time ecclesiastical, to get an annulment.  He got one, and it was then as though She-Evelyn had never been, and he had never had an Anglican mother-in-law who read Augustine in Latin.

 Tut, tut