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The Real-Life Lady of Downton Abbey Shares How Similar Her Life Is To The Show

Lady Fiona Carnarvon
 

You likely don’t know Lady Fiona Carnarvon, eighth Countess of Carnarvon. But you probably know a little bit about her life and her home of Highclere Castle thanks to a not-so-little show called Downton Abbey. Or at least you think you do.

Although Lady Carnarvon and her husband Geroge Herbert, the Eighth Earl of Carnarvon, are the real-life counterparts of Downton Abbey’s Lord Robert and Lady Cora Grantham, she says that they’re “truly not very similar at all.”

“It’s much more hands-on, it’s much more pro-active,” Lady Carnarvon tells Woman’s Day during a recent press trip to the estate. “Cora is living in a different century. Today, I’m running events, marketing, branding, there’s a computer system, an accountant. I’m going on the bicycle to go walk the dogs, see the gardeners, down to the farm to see the pigs, feed the chickens, and then that’s the first part of the day before I’ve even started.”

Although they’re more involved in physically running the castle, like the Crawleys, Lord and Lady Carnarvon still have to employ an immense amount of people (roughly 150 to 180) to keep the 5,000-acre estate running. But the Carnarvons aren’t always directly on site to oversee the castle’s operations because, unlike the Crawleys, the couple doesn’t actually live in the castle full-time — a change that was implemented by Lord Carnarvon’s father. Instead, Lord and Lady Carnarvon reside in a smaller cottage that sits just at the back of the castle, but will still use the castle when hosting guests or for entertaining. And just like in the show, they host plenty of exclusive events that sound nothing short of other-worldly.

“We welcome friends here and Julian Fellowes, the show’s creator, has often stayed with us,” Lady Carnarvon said. “We have amazing singers singing here. We have a concert every May and we have some extraordinary person playing the piano or singing and we welcome 80 people here for that every year. We have concerts in the garden. We had Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” by the Etruscan Temple outside in June looking out over the landscape. It doesn’t get much better than that. We work hard and I think it’s also important to enjoy yourself, so we also throw parties, throw dances.”

Although the Carnarvon’s day-to-day differs from that of the Crawleys,the have still seen their life play out on the show via storylines. For example, in the show, it was the money of Cora, an American heiress, that helped keep Downton afloat when she married Robert — something that sounds eerily familiar to the story of Lady Almina Herbert, the wife of fifth Earl of Carnarvon.

“If there’s any reason we’re still here as a family, it’s because of Almina,” Lady Carnarvon says. “She was the illegitimate daughter of Alfred de Rothschild and her dowery was in something wonderful called cash. In today’s terms, it was about £50 million. He was the Bank of Dad and he adored his only daughter and she adored him, and when she would ask him for money he would say ‘Oh yes darling,’ so that’s the perfect father to have.”

And the connections don’t stop there. During the first World War, Lady Almina helped turn the home into a hospital. complete with an operating room. In the show, Downton Abbey was turned into a wartime convalescent home for soldiers recovering from injuries.

In addition to sharing story lines, Lord and Lady Carnarvon share their furniture and decor with the Downton Abbey production team. In fact, production would borrow the Carnarvon’s dining room table cloths to fit the expansive table when shooting dinner scenes. Upstairs, the unmistakeable bedrooms are all set up in the exact same fashion seen on the show.

Although the idea of living in a tourist attraction may seem a bit overwhelming for many people, Lady Carnarvon says that she loves being able to welcome people into her home and share its history.

Downton Abbey has made us internationally so well known, which has been wonderful to create more tours here and welcome more people, to be able to write books and hopefully have them published, so in that way it has given us a much bigger window on the world,” Lady Carnarvon says. “But at the heart it’s still the same castle, we’re still the same couple living here, we’re still many of the same staff who’ve been here. [Doing tours] is great because people are so excited to come here and they arrive up the drive, sometimes they cry and sometimes they’re just so happy, so to be somewhere and offer tours that make people happy is pretty good.”

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