As you bask in the release of the “Downton Abbey” film this weekend, here’s something fun.
Creighton University has a (somewhat tenuous yet still interesting) tie with the popular British screen franchise. The owner of Highclere Castle contacted CU’s Center for Henry James Studies a couple of years ago for answers to a question about the British American author.
Both the television series and the movie were filmed at the 19th-century castle, prompting its real-life occupants to study and promote its history. As the county seat of the Earl of Carnarvon, it’s now in the hands of the current Lady Carnarvon (the former Fiona Aitken) and her husband, George Herbert, the Eighth Earl of Carnarvon.
Lady Carnarvon wanted to know how many times James visited the castle in his lifetime, from 1843 to 1916, and what his impressions and experiences were while he was there.
And when you need an answer about Henry James, the CU center is the place to call. It catalogs the letters of the author to provide information for James scholars and train students to do research, said its director, Greg Zacharias, a CU professor of English.
There are about 10,500 known Henry James letters. Creighton has copies of about 10,200 of them and access to the others. Zacharias said there are probably more that haven’t been found yet; in fact, he recently learned about two never-before-known letters in Germany and Japan, both in the possession of private parties.
“We keep our eyes open for new letters,” he said.
CU English student Tyler Nelson, who now has graduated, used the center’s resources to help Lady Carnarvon. He found a letter James wrote to the Carnarvon family in 1895 and three others that mentioned his experiences there.
Nelson got the job because he was next in line for something important, Zacharias said.
“I thought he was ready,” he said. “He’s methodical and careful.”
According to the letters, James found the castle and its denizens somewhat wanting. In his day, Lady Carnarvon was “nice and pretty,” but lacked conversation skills, he wrote. And days spent at the castle were very amiable and very boring, he said.
Despite the author’s critique, the current Lady Carnarvon was pleased with the research. She sent the center a signed copy of her history of Highclere Castle with a Christmas card.
Along with research, the center is publishing the complete letters of Henry James in multiple volumes, in conjunction with the University of Nebraska Press. They come out once a year; No. 13 will be released in October, and work will then begin on No. 14. Only 2,000 of the letters have been published so far.
“It’s one of the largest literary projects ever undertaken in the United States,” Zacharias said.
He was pleased to be contacted by the Carnarvon family, even though he’s not a “Downton Abbey” expert or even a regular watcher.
“My wife is a big fan, and I’ve watched episodes with her, but I would say it’s not my thing,” he said.
Nelson’s mom, however, is a super-fan. When she found out about her son’s castle project, Zacharias said, she told him it was worth the cost of tuition.
At different castle, in Omaha, literary fest continues
You can see Mark Twain (at least a reasonable facsimile) at the Joslyn Castle next week.
The castle’s 10th annual Art and Literary Festival centers on the life and works of the Missouri-born Twain, who lived from 1835-1910.
“An Evening with Mark Twain: A Dramatized Selection of Works,” featuring local actors and Metropolitan Community College theater students, begins at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday.
“I read a bunch of his works and found a couple hours of material from short stories and put them together,” said director Scott Working, theater program coordinator at Metro. “All the words are his. I basically conceived it for the stage.”
Highlights include “Diary of Adam and Eve,” a humorous yet sweet look at relationships, presented by married actors Karl and Christina Rohling, and popular performer Nils Haaland as Twain.
The festival also will include a lecture before Thursday’s show and an art show of tintype photographic images “to give it that old-time feel,” Working said.
For a complete schedule of events, go to joslyncastle.com.