Highclere Castle is the residence of the eighth Earl and Countess Carnarvon. This country mansion, situated on 5,ooo acres in Hampshire, west of London, has been in the Carnarvon family since the late Seventeenth century. What does this English country estate, where the hit television show, “Downton Abbey” is filmed, have to do with King Tutankhamen, who lived in ancient Egypt? That relationship is part of the story told Sally Beauman’s novel, The Visitors.
At the opening of the story, the narrator, who is an older woman, is talking to a man who is producing a documentary about the discovery and opening of King Tutankhamen’s tomb in Egypt’s Valley of the Kings and Queens in the Nile Valley in the mid-1920s. Eleven year old Lucy Payne and her guardian visits Egypt from England, where typhoid fever killed her mother and made her severely ill. While in Egypt she becomes acquainted some of historic personages, such as Howard Carter, the archaeologist, and the 5th Earl Carnarvon, then owner of Highclere Castle, and some of his family. Rose, another fictional character, whose society climbing mother is found murdered in Cairo, becomes a life long friend to Lucy.
On Lucy’s second trip to Egypt, she happens to be there when Carter opens the burial chamber of the young pharoah. Later she is invited by Carter see the room where King Tut’s coffin, containing his mummy, reclines. Fortunately for Lucy and her friend Rose, the supposed curse that caused the death of Carnarvon and others, skips them, so that by the story’s end they are still alive, albeit at an advanced age. The Visitors is one of the few novels I have read that has a bibliography. It’s plain Beauman has done her homework.
The advent of modern archaeology came too late to avoid the pillage of the Egyptian tombs by robbers, who harvested objects and sold them on international black market. The question posed in The Visitors and some non-fiction books about Tutankhamen’s tomb, did Carter and Carnarvon remove objects from the burial chamber before letting Egyptian officials see what was inside? If this is the case, are Carter and Carnarvon any better than the grave robbers who stole from other Egyptian tombs? As part of a documentary, shown on PBS, that included a tour of Highclere Castle, the current owner showed some of his great grandfather’s relics from other tombs in the area. In her book “Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey: the Lost Legacy of Highclere Castle,” the 8th Duchess defends her husband’s ancestor by agreeing with his and Carter’s contention that they did not open the burial chamber until the proper officials were present.
The current resident of Highclere Castle, the 8th Duchess Carnarvon, has written the story of the 5th Duchess and her husband. Almina Victoria Maria Alexandra Wombwell married George Edward Stanhope Molyneux Herbert, 5th Earl of Carnarvon in 1895. The bride was the illegitimate daughter of millionaire banker Alfred de Rothschild. The couple had two children, a son and a daughter. The newlyweds honeymooned in Egypt, where the earl evidently became interested in archaeology, for he returned in 1907 to participate in search for tombs in Thebes, which he backed financially. After the war, he joined Howard Carter in search for Tut’s tomb.
Sally Beauman. The Visitors
For further reading:
Lady Fiona Carnarvon. Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey: the Lost Legacy of Highclere Castle
Howard Carter and A. C. Mace. The Discovery of the Tomb of Tutankhamen
C. W. Ceram. Gods, Graves, and Scholars: The Story of Archaeology
C. W. Ceram. Hands on the Past