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Creighton Center for Henry James Studies Contributed to Downton Abbey Research

Downton AbbeyAlthough the American expatriate novelist and essayist Henry James was not depicted in any episode of the popular British drama Downton Abbey, he visited Highclere Castle — the scene of the television series — several times before his death in 1916.

Greg Zacharias, PhD, professor of English at Creighton and director of Creighton University’s Center for Henry James Studies, said Lady Carnarvon (formerly known as Fiona Aitken), wife of George Herbert, the Eighth Earl of Carnarvon, and therefore owner of Highclere Castle, leaned on Creighton resources for information about James.

Two years ago, he said, the countess contacted the University in search of information about James and his visits to Highclere Castle.

Zacharias said the project was assigned to undergraduate student Tyler Nelson, who has since graduated, earning an English degree in 2018. Nelson produced information that pleased Lady Carnarvon so much that she sent the department a signed copy of her history of Highclere Castle, as well as a Christmas card.

Among the information unearthed by Nelson’s research was one letter from 1895 written directly to the Carnarvon family and three others in which James mentioned Highclere Castle and his experiences there, not all complimentary.

Among the letters referenced by Nelson was one that referred to the Lady Carnarvon of his day as “nice and pretty” but lacking “the genius of conversation.”

Another mentioned a pending trip to Highclere where James expected to “bore myself a good deal in very amiable + very respectable society.”

A higher compliment, perhaps, was received from Nelson’s mother, a big Downton Abbey fan, when she heard her son was conducting research on Highclere Castle/Downton Abbey for the Countess Carnarvon.

“Well,” Zacharias said she told her son, “that’s worth the cost of tuition.”

Zacharias said he was pleased to be contacted by the Carnarvon family. “Teaching is part of our mission, along with service and scholarship,” he said. “We're very successful, which is why folks call on us.”


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