The Duchess of Rutland, Emma Manners (née Watkins), grew up on a farm in the Welsh Borders before becoming proprietress of Belvoir Castle in Leicestershire. ‘On so many levels I was ill-equipped for the job,’ she reflects in her new podcast, Duchess. ‘I so remember opening a door and hearing the butlers downstairs saying: “Have we broken her yet?”… I felt like a ball they were bouncing.’
Thirty years after coming to Belvoir — pronounced ‘Beaver’ — the Duchess is ready to talk candidly about the difficulties she and other women have faced as custodians of stately homes. Following in the footsteps of Lady Carnarvon, who launched a podcast of her own from Highclere last spring, the Duchess dotes on the Downton and Bridgertonbrigade, while highlighting the real existential threat faced by many historic estates.
The first episode takes her to Hedingham Castle, a magnificent Norman keep near Braintree in Essex, to meet its chatelaine, Demetra Lindsay. Built on land bequeathed to Aubrey de Vere, a baron of William the Conqueror, the castle was home to the Earls of Oxford and visited by Henry VIII before being inherited by the Lindsays via the Majendie family, the last of whom died without issue.
Apparently on better terms with the ghosts than the staff upon arriving at Hedingham 17 years ago, Demetra, a trained architect, had little choice but to develop a thick skin. ‘You have to be assertive,’ she said, reflecting on the troubles she experienced in persuading male employees to follow her instructions. Nicknamed ‘Treacle’ in her professional life, in which she was vastly outnumbered by men, she was clearly shocked to find herself subject to similar prejudice in her own home.
The Duchess of Rutland enjoys telling her own story, which tends to creep in, perhaps unconsciously, at vital junctures in the podcast. There are clearly things she wants to say. She now has an audience to hear them. The series should also bring some much-needed revenue to homes like these, which cost in the region of £250,000 a year to run and depend upon tourism.
After the gentle tinkling of ‘Lord of All Hopefulness’, employed as background music in Duchess, the heavy metal of The Brummie Iliad quickened the pulse. The bass of Black Sabbath blared with every manoeuvre on the Trojan battlefield, shield repelling spear, arrow striking greave. Described as ‘a happy collision’ of Homer’s epic and the ‘gorgeous cadences of Britain’s second city’, the drama was certainly loud.
Roderick Smith, an actor raised in Birmingham, was the composer and bard, performing Homer’s role from the point in the story where Patroclus borrows Achilles’s armour. ‘Just give us a lend on it,’ the young warrior begs. Achilles is still in a mood, effing and blinding, not giving ‘a kipper’s dick about prophecies’. Reluctantly, he agrees to hand over his metalwork, and unwittingly sends Patroclus to his death.
There was some clever poetry in Smith’s rendering. Wisely steering clear of hexameters, he employed rhyme where he felt it was needed, and elsewhere played loose, even introducing a tragic chorus into the epic. Between Sarpedon’s request for his men to ‘make a porcupine of spears’ about his corpse, and tough talk uniting men ‘like razor clams’, the vulgarity of the vernacular broke in. Achilles at one point described Hector ‘zigzagging all over the shop like a fart in a colander’.
So gruff were these warriors that, at such moments, the pathos of the poetry became lost in the language. While we were transported to the battlefield, we were liable to forget that we were on Homer’s battlefield, where for every grunt of ‘scum’ there ought to have been another of ‘honour’ and ‘reputation’. ‘Spunk’, however, was inspired. Whether Smith intended it or not, I am taking it as a close translation of thumos, the heroic fighting spirit that no one quite knows how to English.
That said, an hour and a half in, I was beginning to feel like Louis MacNeice during his years as a lecturer at Birmingham, buckling as the room resounded ‘To Homer in a Dudley accent’. For all its rhythmic beauty, the downward intonation of the dialect, coupled with the heavy metal, brought out the grimness of these scenes. Few today have the staying power of Homer’s early audiences. At half the length this Brummie epic would have been summat.
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