They’re the kind of letters – written by a lady’s maid and verging on scandalous – that would have Downton Abbey’s stoic butler Carson reaching for the pantry port.
Spiced with high-society gossip and below-stairs indiscretions, the missives had lain forgotten, in time-honoured fashion, in a dusty box at the back of a wardrobe.
And now, after 90 years, their contents are published for the first time here in The Mail on Sunday.
The letters’ author, Ethel North, chronicled events in and around Highclere Castle – where ITV’s Downton was filmed – throughout the 1920s and early 1930s.
Royalty frequently moved within her orbit: she encountered Prince George and his ‘fast-living’ lover, and his brother, the future King Edward VIII.
And she adored Field Marshal Earl Haig. She also met numerous politicians and writers such as Rudyard Kipling.
Ethel North (left) was personal maid to Lady Burghclere, sister of the 5th Earl Carnarvon. Ethel sent letters to her friend Elsie Merrall which chronicled events in and around Highclere Castle where ITV’s Downton was filmed and which features Joanne Frogatt (right) as the maid Anna
The letters give readers a porthole through history and into the lives at Highclere Castle
Mostly she captured everything with a devastatingly sharp eye, though she wasn’t always spot-on.
Writing in August 1928 of the marriage of the youngest daughter of her mistress, Lady Burghclere, to Evelyn Waugh, one of the 20th Century’s greatest prose stylists, Ethel said: ‘As far as we can judge [he is] a very unsatisfactory young man whose only living is an occasional book. Time alone will show, of course.’
Against a backdrop of social upheaval, Downton Abbey followed the lives of the Earl of Grantham, his wife Cora and their family and servants during the same period that Ethel was in service, and was loosely inspired by Highclere’s aristocratic inhabitants, among them the 5th Earl of Carnarvon, who discovered the tomb of Tutankhamun with Howard Carter.
Having trained as a dressmaker, Ethel, a butcher’s daughter from Leicester, began working for Lady Burghclere, the Earl’s formidable older sister, in 1919, aged 29.
Set in 5,000 acres of Hampshire countryside, 300-room Highclere, attracted the beau monde. And her mistress was also at the heart of London society.
Ethel recorded her encounters with all she met (and all she saw and heard) in perceptive detail for the benefit of her best friend, Elsie Merrall.
It was Elsie’s granddaughter, Melissa Lawrence, who found the letters – about 80 in all – after the death of her mother, and she is now turning them into a book.
In October 1929, Ethel wrote on Highclere notepaper of a visit from banking heiress Poppy Baring, who had been romantically involved with Prince George, Duke of Kent.
Prince George’s girlfriend at the time, Miss Poppy Baring (left) daughter of Lady Barling. Ethel met many major figures of historical importance, and her favourite was probably Field Marshall Earl Haig (right), commander of British forces on the Western Front in WWI
‘[She was] quite intelligent but quite plain, I thought. The King and Queen were so afraid he was going to marry her, they sent round to all the marriage register offices, forbidding the Registrar to marry them… She has now married a man named Thursby.
‘I do not know if it will be a lasting union. She was apparently much too gay for the King and Queen.’
In the same letter she relates a story about George’s brother, the Prince of Wales, commonly known as David – later Edward VIII.
At the time his great love was Freda Dudley Ward, who was only supplanted in his affections by Wallis Simpson.
Ethel recalls that a friend of Lady Burghclere went ‘to call on Mrs Dudley Ward… whose little girl appeared on the scene first, wearing an exquisite bracelet.
‘Lady M said to her, “What a pretty bracelet. Who gave it to you?” “A gentleman,” replied the infant. “What’s his name?” asked Lady M. The child hesitated and then said, “I don’t quite know. The servants call him Your Royal Highness but Mamma calls him David, darling.” ’
Both Ethel and Lady Burghclere, a biographer, share a fervent love of the arts, with Ethel’s thirst for knowledge manifest in many of the letters.
They also delight in overseas sojourns, travelling extensively in Europe, Africa and the United States, almost always staying with distinguished friends.
It was in Rome that Ethel met Field Marshal Haig, commander of British forces on the Western Front in the First World War. She wrote to Elsie: ‘My Dear, I love him [Haig]. He is so shy and quiet.
It is very difficult for me to believe he commanded the British Army and he talks in such a slow, almost hesitating way. So different from what one imagines of a great soldier.
‘Their eldest girl gives them a lot of trouble. A real young modern. General Haig can do nothing with her and he’s been awfully kind to her, riding one old horse himself to hounds and giving her three young and fresh ones, so each day’s hunt may be as enjoyable as the preceding one… Strange.
Young couple in love: Evelyn Waugh with his first wife Evelyn Gardner pictured in 1928
‘He can command an army but not one girl of 18!’ Elsewhere she writes of the Queen Mother, then the 26-year-old Duchess of York, who was pregnant with the future Queen.
‘The Duchess… expects to have her baby at the end of April or beginning of May.
‘They are coming to live at the bottom of Green Street [Lady Burghclere’s Mayfair residence] next month – 40 Grosvenor Square.
‘The King and Queen are awfully pleased. The Queen said a strange thing the other day to Lady Margaret [Lady Burghclere’s sister].
‘In talking about the Duchess she said, “Yes, she is such a dear little thing and so kind and friendly towards us.” This is much for the Queen to say.’
At this stage, Lady Burghclere was widowed; her husband had been a prominent Liberal politician and president of the Board of Agriculture.
The couple had four daughters whom Ethel found ‘moody’ and ‘selfish’. The youngest, Lady Evelyn, left Evelyn Waugh (they were known to their friends as He-Evelyn and She-Evelyn) after less than a year of marriage.
Ethel, writing in August 1929, said it caused Lady Burghclere great concern. ‘Wicked Miss E left her husband a fortnight ago to go off with another young man, worse off than her husband… These girls were never meant for marriage.’
She wrote of another of the daughters, saying: ‘Juliet has also been troublesome and Lady B has had to pay £700 in debts for her during this last month. I think they must all be bewitched, or is this what is called “the modern spirit?”.’
After the 5th Earl of Carnarvon’s death in 1923, his widow, Almina, married again just eight months later, with indecent haste, according to Ethel.
It is hard to imagine her fictional Downton counterpart – maid Anna (played by Joanne Froggatt) – being quite so forthright.
Ethel wrote: ‘I expect you saw the announcement of the Countess’s marriage,’ writes Ethel. ‘I knew I was right. There was far too great a show of grief eight months ago to carry any weight with me.
‘It is never real. Lady B and indeed the rest of the family are distressed and angry. My lady has given the order “Not at Home” if she calls, so they are evidently sending her to Coventry.’
While the early letters referred to Lady Burghclere as ‘milady’, as the years passed she became ‘Lady B’. And in many of her musings, Ethel appears to appropriate some of the older woman’s language, describing a scene or building as ‘delicious’.
Occasionally, Ethel relates details of her work, describing in May 1922 the preparations for Lady Evelyn’s presentation at court as a debutante. ‘It meant a lot more for me to do… as I have many dresses to make,’ she wrote.
After the First World War, many noble families saw a decline in their fortunes. Ethel wrote in 1933: ‘We [Ethel and Lady B] sold a lot of gold ornaments to pay our fare [to Portofino] because Lady B’s income has sunk from £4,000 a year to £2,000, which is very little, accustomed as she has been to living in great state. The taxes are indeed crippling everybody… but I suppose we shall survive it.’
In addition to casting a fascinating light on the inter-war period, the letters chart Ethel’s close relationship with Lady Burghclere, which went beyond the classic mistress-servant dynamic.
‘We have been quite extraordinary friends and companions, the greatest I ever had.’
And after Lady B’s death in 1933, she wrote: ‘She was my most intimate friend… I am glad I was so much use to her.’