Thursday, January 17, 2013

Up to date on Downton

I'm now up to date on Downton Abbey after a mini-marathon last night. It was reassuring to see that Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham, still is consistently inept (having this time lost his wife's American fortune); Lady Edith, still disappointed; Matthew Crawley, still annoying; and Violet, the dowager countess (Dame Maggie Smith) still capable to chewing up scenery when given an opportunity. I expected more from Shirley MacLaine as Martha Levinson, Lady Grantham's American mother. Too bad.

Thomas, the dastardly gay footman turned valet (Rob James-Collier) and his nemesis, the evil lady's maid Sarah (Siobhan Finneran), do not disappoint. Anxiously awaiting the next twist in that subplot. All in all, good fun.


But I can't for the life of me locate my first-edition copy of Curtis Harnack's "Gentlemen on the Prairie" (Iowa State University Press, 1986; still available in paperback from University of Iowa Press). It's here somewhere, just not on the shelf where it's supposed to be; and Downton gives me the urge to re-read. Maybe this time I'll do it.

There's a U.S. link to Highclere Castle, the crumbling pile known as Downton Abbey in the series; and that link has an interesting (to me at least) but tenuous link to the northwest Iowa subject of Harnack's slim volume.

Highclere currently is owned and occupied by George Herbert, the eighth Earl of Carnarvon, and his family. His mother, the dowager countess, is a Wyoming girl, Jean Wallop, born and raised at Big Horn, southwest of Sheridan, where the Wallop family still operates Canyon Ranch and she has a home.

Jean (Wallop) Herbert's grandfather, Oliver Henry Wallop --- who died in Wyoming during 1943, was among that breed of English-Americans known as remittance men, younger sons of aristocratic families shipped off to the United States to give them something useful and out-of-the-way to do, supported by allowances (remittances) from Mother England. Due to a series of well-timed deaths in England, Oliver inadvertently ended up as the eighth earl of Portsmouth --- one of a limited number of British peers to have a titled tombstone in America (in the Sheridan Cemetery).

Anyhow, Henry Herbert (seventh Earl Carnarvon and Jean Wallop's husband) was Queen Elizabeth's racing manager and friend, which explains why the queen and her entourage visited Canyon Ranch during 1984. We were making a state visit (from Iowa) to aunts, uncles and cousins who lived in the Buffalo-Sheridan area along the Big Horns that year, and the considerably more memorable royal visit was quite the topic of conversation. Cousins who live across the road from the Sheridan Airport, where the royal plane landed, had a front-row seat for the comings and goings.

The tenuous link to Iowa comes because before the mountains of the West beckoned, northwest Iowa --- then considered the wild west --- was the site of a British colony for remittance men, led by the William B. Close and his brothers. That colony is what Harnack's book is all about.

It's a very entertaining account of a footnote to Iowa history and a colony that failed to endure for all sorts of reasons including climate, financial recession, the absense of an underclass to exploit and the lack of "suitable" material for marriages.

Those Wyoming remittance men fared much better. In Iowa, Harnack's book and St. George's Episcopal Church in Le Mars --- where regular prayers for Queen Victoria once were on the liturgical menu --- remain as the principal souvenirs. Wyoming still has the Wallops.

No comments: