Countess Carnarvon, the chatelaine of Highclere Castle, will be giving a talk at the Exchange in Sturminster Newton this month about her latest book, The Earl and The Pharaoh. The Castle is, of course, the location for the ever-popular Downton Abbey TV series, and was the home of the fifth Earl of Carnarvon, famous for the discovery of the tomb of the young Pharaoh, Tutankhamun.
Lady Carnarvon’s book is a biography of the explorer, who died from blood poisoning after being bitten by a mosquito, not long after the opening of King Tut’s tomb. She has been able to write the inside story on the fifth Earl, thanks to the family archive housed in Highclere Castle.
‘No-one’s ever written a book about him,’ she says. ‘It seemed to me so extraordinary. It’s been like a wonderful treasure trail – reading his handwriting in the diaries … I hugely enjoyed putting it all together and building his character, it was absolutely fascinating.
‘I very much hope I got to know the man. He was partly an invalid for much of his life. In 1909 he was in a near-fatal car accident, from which he never really fully recovered. But he also had asthma – and he smoked!
Yet that never stopped him. He truly was not at all well, but he refused to give in to it. He had been working in Egypt before the car accident and it nearly kyboshed his return, but he did make it back. He had really found his passion in Egyptology and archaeology.
‘Above all, his life was marked by many small acts of kindness. Those have stayed with me.
‘For some biographies you have all the pieces of the puzzle and it’s simply a case of constructing the outside edge, then filling in the middle pieces.
With this book, I had the feeling that I had a bag of pieces and had to painstakingly pull them together without knowing what the final picture looked like! I had no box image, no straight edges … it was such a journey of discovery.
‘I often found mis-filed letters, un-dated diaries, intriguing notes … they all added greater meaning, but I had to find where they fitted.’
Into the archive
I’m fascinated by the idea of an archive at Highclere. Is there a grand subterranean vault dedicated to these documents?
‘No, there’s an archive room on the top floor, and there’s two muniments rooms on a stone staircase. Then there’s another archive room with more recent archives along another corridor. I’ve recently created a new room, which I love. It’s coloured the yellow of Egyptian sand and sunlight and warmth – NOT like where I am at the moment! In there I‘ve begun to gather together the archive of everything relating to the fifth Earl and Egyptology. It’s really exciting to bring things together in an organised manner instead of wondering which box something might be in, then – having put it back – forgetting where I put it. Which is rather the story of my life!’
So by now, does Lady Carnarvon know the archive extremely well?
‘No! Not at all! I honestly find it mesmerising in its immensity. I will never ever be able to get through it all. Sometimes I feel quite upset as I think I’ve missed something – and I have. Other times I can be excited when I discover something. I can never spend enough time there.
‘Writing a book is an intense experience, and I become totally wrapped up – I’m not good company and probably not a brilliant wife! As I write I’m ONLY reading around the subject, my head is constantly turning round the latest paragraph. As a writer I try and bring people with me; across the Nile in a brightly coloured boat, or getting on a donkey to go to the Valley of the Kings. I’m trying to bring the colour and experience of history, as well as the facts.
‘Being tucked away in the archives means I’m not distracted by interruptions. If someone makes it up all three flights of stairs, they really must need to speak to me. My husband doesn’t bother! He’s very patient. He’s also very passionate about the fifth Earl. The discovery of the tomb was the first truly global media event. It’s such a legacy. And without the fifth Earl, Tutankhamun may not have been discovered.’
Has he been given enough credit for the discovery?
‘He’s been given no credit at all. He’s normally written off as the financier. Part of this book is trying to give him a larger place in history. He wasn’t recognised by anyone in this country for what he achieved. He was a humble, modest man, and then he died at the hour of his triumph, at just 56. What a legacy he left us.
‘I hope, to a small extent, I have completed Lord Carnarvon’s wish; he intended to write about his discoveries, but died not long after the discovery of the tomb. His book would have been full of more colour than mine, full of everyday credit to those around him, far more than I was able to include. It would have been a different book, but I hope I’m part way to telling the story of an extraordinary man and his extraordinary discovery.’
And so to the 19 random questions…
1. What’s your relationship with Dorset?
It is a beautiful county of cliffs, fossils, sea and hidden valleys. Growing up I remember a number of summer holidays playing tennis on grass courts, going for walks and I took my son down there when he was little to look for fossils.
2. The last film you watched?
In the cinema? It was the latest Mission Impossible, which was great fun.
3. It’s Friday night – you have the house to yourself, and no work is allowed. What are you going to do?
Have a long bath with a book.
4. What was the last song you sang out loud in your car?
It always seems to be ABBA!
5. What would you like to tell 15 year-old you?
Just to try your best.
6. Tell us about a sound or a smell that makes you happy?
Always roses and birdsong
7. The best crisps flavour?
(I mean, that’s cheating, but I’ll allow it – Ed)
8. What’s you’re secret superpower?
I really don’t think I have one?!
9. What would you like to be remembered for?
10. What shop can you not pass by?
A bookshop with coffee inside. Who can resist?
11. Chip shop chips or home-baked cake??
Homemade cake, every time, thank you!
12. Tell us about one of the best evenings you’ve had?
Burns Night at Highclere – a night just filled with friends and dancing and laughter.
13. Your favourite quote?
Impossible to answer. I don’t have a single quote – I have many quotes and many poems. I refuse to pick just one!
14. Your most annoying trait?
I work too much!
15. What was the last gift you either gave, or received?
I don’t actually remember – I love to do it, I am always giving little presents.
16. Your top three most-visited websites (excluding news and social media)?
I really only use the web for work or news – it’s not a very exciting answer is it?
17. What in life is frankly a mystery to you?
18. You have the power to pass one law, uncontested. What will you do with it?
Sorry, I’m going to choose not to answer this one – there are just too many laws that need reform for me to narrow it down to one.
19. Cats or dogs?