“There is no school for duchesses,” Emma Manners, the Duchess of Rutland, tells me. “No degree. No course. No qualification.” But her new podcast, Duchess—a series of conversations with the women behind Britain’s grandest estates—contains some valuable lessons, should any listeners be considering a strategic marriage or a misguided real-estate purchase.
The first thing is to get the roof in check. (“If you don’t fix that, what’s the point in even decorating the rooms?” the duchess says.) The second is to know who’s boss. (“These places are so enormous that they’ll swallow you up.”) And the third is to get rid of the ghosts. (Unless you’re the Honorable Demetra Lindsay of Hedingham Castle, who’d rather hang on to hers. “They just create this lovely warm atmosphere,” she says in Episode Four.) “Ours were really affecting the children,” the duchess says. “And we couldn’t have that.”
The rest, really, comes down to grit. Which is not a word you’d necessarily always pair with “duchess.” (Then again, neither is “podcast”—but the duchess and this newfangled format get along terrifically, thanks in no small part to her eldest daughter, Lady Violet, who first came up with the idea and has piloted its production.)
Downton Abbey and Austen paint the life of a duchess as a whirl of pearls, miniature cakes, and acidic social analysis. But the 10 women interviewed for the podcast could not conform less to the stereotype.
Sometimes you hear the chiming of a grandfather clock in the background of a recording, or the tink of bone china, and you realize you’re not in Kansas anymore. But each of the ladies behind these great estates is strictly of the roll-up-your-sleeves-and-yank-a-dead-pigeon-out-of-the-gutter variety. The type who can spot a Gainsborough at a hundred paces and calm a runaway horse. At Belvoir Castle (pronounced “Beaver”), the Manners family pile, it takes five days to clean the windows alone.
The ladies all share similar story arcs. You inherit a house, or marry a chap who’s about to inherit a house, and quickly have to work out how to drag it—and its acres of collapsing roof, 356 fireplaces, ancient butlers, and bumbling ghosts (those last two are sometimes interchangeable)—into the 21st century.
Back in the day, Belvoir was a bustling village unto itself, with bulging coffers and hundreds of live-in staff. Tending to the castle flag was a full-time position, and someone was employed solely to ring the gong at mealtimes. But things have changed. In 2019, Historic Houses, the official body for independently owned heritage estates, estimated that these homes were facing a collective $2 billion in needed repairs.
At Belvoir Castle (pronounced “Beaver”), the Manners family pile, it takes five days to clean the windows alone.
The duchess remembers learning at the reading of the will of her late father-in-law, the 10th Duke of Rutland, that the family would have to find some $20 million just to pay the taxman. Like all of her interviewees, she was plonked at a young age into the C.E.O. chair of an ancient business that didn’t really even know it was a business—all the while carrying a child on each hip.
In 2001, a few weeks after moving into Belvoir, the duchess says, she walked down a corridor and stumbled upon two antique butlers who had been with the estate for decades. “Most of them were drunk most of the time. You’d find them in cupboards downstairs, squirreled away doing very little,” she says. “I overheard one of them saying to the other: ‘Have we broken her yet?’” The duchess recalls crying. “But by the time I got to the end of the corridor I had pulled myself together. ‘You’ve got to step up, gal,’ I said. ‘You’ve got to run this show.’”
I ask the duchess if there is a feminist thrust to the series. Perhaps something in the mold of Archewell, the new, happy-clappy podcast hosted by the Duke and Duchess of Sussex. Belvoir, as the duchess reminds me, “was built by a woman while her husband was off shooting and fishing and hunting,” after all.
“No,” she says, definitively. “I cannot bear feminism. I think the most important thing is to be respectful of your male partners.... A wonderful thing that came out of the podcast was the sense of a deep partnership that you need in order for it to work. There’s just too much to do, otherwise.”
The duchess’s own partnership began when she married David, the 11th Duke of Rutland and heir to Belvoir, in 1992, after meeting him at a party. Before that, she was Emma Watkins, daughter of a farmer in Wales. The duke and duchess separated in 2012, though they remain friends and live in separate towers of the castle—an arrangement that caused no end of tabloid intrigue at the time.
The family would have to find some $20 million just to pay the taxman.
The press later dubbed the three daughters “the Bad Manners girls,” following reports of boisterous house parties at their home in West London. But the duchess is philosophical about the attention. “I think if you’ve been splashed across the national press … you’ve learned that people will think what they will think,” she tells me. “And I always say, ‘If you haven’t read the book, you don’t know the story.’”
As a teenager, the duchess won a scholarship to study opera at Guildhall School of Music & Drama, in London. “I was thrown into a world where everyone was amazing. And I suddenly thought, These people are going to be superstars; and there’s no way you will. So I moved on.”
Still, there’s a pleasing element of performance to the role of castle matriarch. A great deal of Belvoir and its rolling Capability Brown parkland, like so many grand English houses, is open to the public. “We’ve got this amazing door in the castle between the public and the private side,” says the duchess. “And I feel it’s like a stage door to the audience, in some ways.” (Belvoir doubles as Windsor Castle in The Crown.)
The children were often encouraged into cameo roles, too. “When we first arrived, the guides made us feel uncomfortable.... So I gave the children water pistols and told them to lie under the beds, and every now and again, when a tour came in, to squirt the guides.”
Each of the estates featured in Duchess has been laid low by the coronavirus pandemic. Huge chunks of their income derive from visitor footfall, wedding-venue rentals, and location filming—streams that have been crippled by the lockdowns.
But the guests interviewed for the podcast are optimistic about the future. “We’ve been through civil wars and the black plague,” the duchess says.
“We are custodians for just a brief moment in time,” she says. “You know you’re not going to live forever, and the proof is everywhere. It’s hanging on the walls. So there can be no egos.... I’m just Miss Emma Watkins from the Welsh hills, who happened to end up in a grand castle. And I’m just going to do my job the best I can.”
Joseph Bullmore is a Writer at Large for AIR MAIL
Duchess is available on Spotify and Apple Podcasts