From 1919 to 1933, my maternal grandmother’s close friend Ethel North was lady’s maid to Lady Winifred Burghclere, the elder sister of the 5th Earl of Carnarvon. It was the 5th Earl who, along with Egyptologist and archaeologist Howard Carter, discovered the tomb of Tutankhamun in 1922.
Fans of the extraordinarily popular UK television series Downton Abbey will probably already know that the Carnarvons were the real life inspiration for the fictional Crawley family and that their ancestral home of Highclere Castle was used extensively in the filming of the series.
In 2008, I was going through some of my late mother’s possessions when I came across a box of old letters and postcards tucked away at the back of her wardrobe. They had been sent to my grandmother by Ethel North while she was in service to Lady Burghclere and my mother had obviously kept them all.
When I looked at the letters more closely, I discovered that at least one of them had been written from Highclere Castle, as well as from Lady Burghclere’s residency in London and the homes of other Carnarvon family members. A large amount of the correspondence had also been sent from the many places around the world that Ethel had visited with Lady B (as Ethel refers to her in the letters) including America, Canada, Europe, Palestine and of course, Egypt, where she and Lady Burghclere were shown around the Tutankhamun excavations by Howard Carter himself.
I also discovered that Ethel’s letters contained lots of interesting “gossip” about the Royal Family and the Carnarvons, as well as many leading figures of the day including Sir Winston Churchill, General Haig, the British diplomat Sir Esme Howard and the Archbishop of Canterbury. As a complete collection, they painted a fascinating portrait of the social, cultural, economic and political climate of the time.
However, what really struck me on reading them was that Lady Burghclere and Ethel clearly became much more than just mistress and servant. It was obvious as the letters progressed that they developed an extremely close friendship, becoming more like sisters or even mother and daughter. This seemed quite remarkable for two women from such opposite ends of the social spectrum, especially during a period in post-war Britain when “class” was still everything.
After eventually finding time to read all the letters and postcards, I began to feel very strongly indeed that I wanted to get them published as a non-fiction book. I decided to call it My Dear Elsie as that is how most of Ethel’s letters begin.
However, as I soon discovered, wanting to get a book published and actually doing it are two completely different things. Seven years later, following a very difficult time in my personal life, I finally started on the journey of trying to find an agent/publisher for My Dear Elsie. Twelve years later, in 2020, I’m still on that journey but I’ve now given up on the idea of the agent/publisher and plan to self-publish the book. You can keep up with my progress in the blog on this site.
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Disclaimer: Please note that this website has been set up in good faith by Melissa Lawrence with the express intention of helping to publicise a collection of letters and postcards written by Ethel North to Elsie Merrall between 1919 and 1933 with a view to publication of the aforementioned letters and postcards. It is not in any way connected with, or endorsed by, any living member of the Burghclere, Carnarvon, Gardner or North family.
All text and images on this website Copyright Melissa Lawrence 2015 unless otherwise stated.