The Book That Will Save Downton Abbey (Spoiler Alert!)
So, much as I predicted, last night's second episode of this season of "Downton Abbey" was a significant improvement over the first, with a card shark pulling the wool over poor Lord Grantham’s eyes, the servants returning to their downstairs bickering and skullduggery, and Lady Mary taking to her bed in mourning for no more than a few minutes. Once more the dowager countess had all the best lines (“If I were to search for logic I should not look for it among the British upper class”).
There was a darker side, too. But I’ll let others deal with the decision of the show’s writers to join a disturbing trend in serious television lately -- to wit, the assumption that the viewing experience will be enhanced if only a major character is raped.
I want, rather, to point out a peculiar story element that presumably foreshadows some future mischief: the disclosure that Lord Grantham’s library includes a Gutenberg Bible. When I heard this, my first thought was to wonder why on earth we needed all that blather last season about whether the abbey would have to be sold after Robert lost most of his wife’s fortune.
Let me explain my thinking. According to the show’s back story, in 1888, the American heiress Cora Levinson, then age 20, married Robert Grantham, the future Earl of Grantham, bringing along a substantial dowry. The marriage was forced upon both parties so that the Granthams might have some of the Levinson money. It’s difficult to work out from the facts given in the show how large Cora’s dowry was. Fans love to compare the famous tale of Consuelo Vanderbilt, whose dowry upon her marriage to the Duke of Marlborough is often estimated at more than $2 million -- in 1895 dollars. But the story is famous precisely because the amount was so exceptional. More common was a tale like that of Lord Randolph Churchill, whose 1874 marriage to Jennie Jerome, daughter of a New York financier, carried a dowry estimated at £50,000, considered at the time an enormous sum.
If Cora’s fortune was Vanderbilt-sized, it’s unlikely that even so incompetent an investor as Lord Grantham could truly have lost it all so swiftly -- and even more unlikely that his wife would be so blithely forgiving of his careless profligacy. Most likely, the dowry was of a considerably smaller scale.
How small? Consider the story behind the survival of Highclere Castle, where Downton Abbey is filmed -- a story well known to the show’s fans. In 1895, George Edward Stanhope Molyneux Herbert, the fifth Earl of Carnarvon, married the goddaughter (some say illegitimate daughter) of Alfred de Rothschild, who in turn promised to pay a dowry of £12,000 a year. Suppose that Rothschild had instead settled upon the estate the amount necessary to generate that much income. British long-term interest rates of the era hovered around 4 percent. This suggests a dowry of £300,000.
Let us take this figure, then, as a reasonable estimate Cora’s fortune -- the bulk of which was wasted by Lord Grantham. What has all of this to do with the Gutenberg Bible?
Consider: In 1911, Henry Huntington of the Southern Pacific Railroad purchased a Gutenberg Bible at auction for $50,000 -- up to that time the largest sum ever paid for a book. The price was a steal: about $1.25 million in 2012 dollars, whereas the estimated value of a complete copy today is in excess of $35 million. The 1920s saw a rare book craze among the rich. In 1929, a Gutenberg Bible would sell to a German collector for $275,000 plus a 10 percent export fee -- more than $300,000. Let’s assume, conservatively, that Lord Grantham’s copy in 1920 was worth the average of these two figures -- $175,000.
At the conversion rate in 1920 ($3.66 to £1), this comes to about £48,000. Now, this is only a fraction of Cora’s dowry. But the Granthams don’t need to replace the dowry. They need only enough to run Downton for a few years while they take stock and make plans. The idea is to buy some time. And, remember, we’re speaking of an era when few servants earned much more than £30 a year.
One might reasonably answer that Lord Grantham would sooner part with his ancestral lands than with the Gutenberg Bible, and as a bibliophile I would applaud this choice. A good quarter of Britain’s great country houses changed hands in the years after World War I. But the writers have spent three seasons emphasizing Robert’s love of the property, and, so far as I am able to recall, have never said a word about his love of books -- in fact, we learned in last night's episode that he doesn't even know where his Gutenberg Bible is.