Downton Abbey Comes to Virginia Rep Center

Parts of Steven Spielberg’s eagerly awaited movie, Lincoln, were shot in our elegant November Theatre last fall.  It was a real kick to see Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, and Spielberg himself walking through the historic hallways we call home.  Lincoln won’t open in theatres until next month, but last week we enjoyed another brush with celebrity when Downton Abbey came to visit our historic theatre.

For the first time in over 100 years, The Woman’s Club held one of its programs outside the magnificent Bolling Haxall House, which has served as the club’s historic headquarters for over a century.  Virginia Rep was proud to partner with The Woman’s Club as we jointly hosted a visit from Lady Fiona, 8th Countess of Carnarvon, owner and resident with her husband of Highclere Castle, the extraordinary British landmark that the world now knows as the fictional Downton Abbey.

Nearly every seat in our November Theatre was filled as Lady Carnarvon spoke about her new book, Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey: The Lost Legacy of Highclere Castle.  Lady Almina was the 5th Countess of Carnarvon, and it was she who converted Highclere Castle into a hospital in September 1914, inspiring much of the plot of the hugely successful drama series.  Downton Abbey has earned over 11 million viewers in the UK and is now shown in over 100 countries around the world, making Highclere Castle one of the most recognizable homes on earth.

From the pen of Oscar-winning screenwriter Julian Fellowes, Downton Abbey has an all star cast led by Dame Maggie Smith, Hugh Bonneville, Michelle Dockery, Dan Stevens, Jim Carter, Elizabeth McGovern, Penelope Wilton, and, new this year, Richmond native Shirley MacLain.

Just 19 when she married the 5th Earl, Almina was actually the illegitimate daughter of Alfred de Rothschild. She arrived at Highclere Castle with a stupendous dowry.  The book uncovers many fascinating stories on life both upstairs and downstairs at the castle during Edwardian times.

Life changed in August 1914 when the First World War broke out and Almina rolled up her sleeves, turned Highclere Castle into a hospital and began to admit patients coming back from the trenches. The stories of the men whose lives and limbs she saved are fascinating and provide an excellent reading companion to the fictional portrayal of the convalescent home in Downton Abbey.

Eventually the fighting ceased. Many of the staff at Highclere had volunteered and not all came back. Lady Carnarvon returned the Castle back into a family home in the 1920s.  Soon thereafter, the 5th Earl of Carnarvon went exploring in Egypt. The book takes up the story of this remarkable man, who with Howard Carter discovered the tomb of Tutankhamun in 1922.

It was great to welcome Lady Carnarvon and The Woman’s Club to Virginia Rep Center.  Lady Carnarvon could not have been more friendly and pleasant.  We greatly enjoyed this new partnership with The Woman’s Club, and hope it will be the first among many.

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