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Biltmore vs. "Downton Abbey" - Notice any similarities?

Posted on 01/04/2013 by Leeann Donnelly

We are so excited about this Sunday’s season premier of “Downton Abbey” on PBS. And it’s no wonder!

The fictional drama unfolding between Lord and Lady Grantham, their daughters and their staff overlaps the time when George and Edith Vanderbilt lived in Biltmore House, which bears a striking resemblance to the Crawley’s beloved home. Those similarities are particularly evident during two of our specialty tours: The Biltmore House Butler’s Tour and the Vanderbilt Family & Friends Tour.

These tours allow our guests glimpses into some of the little-seen areas of Biltmore House while guides discuss the people who worked for and visited the Vanderbilts when it was their primary home. Following are some of those the parallels between life depicted on the fictional program, and life in Biltmore House.

On the Biltmore House Butler’s Tour

Housekeeper’s Room:  Biltmore had Mrs. King; for “Downton Abbey,” it’s Mrs. Hughes. While there were differences in the ways American and English households were managed, the housekeeper played a major role. Mrs. Hughes is known for her collection of house keys and her calm demeanor. Mrs. King served as Biltmore House’s housekeeper and was remembered for her own massive ring of keys.

Butler’s Pantry:  Carson, the butler in “Downton Abbey,” was instrumental in managing how meals were served to the Crawley family and their visitors. The Butler’s Pantry shows where the Vanderbilts’ butler would have organized the staff and meal service.

Technology:  Telephones, call boxes, speaking tubes, electric lights, etc., were extremely rare items in the early 1900s. In “Downton Abbey,” there are scenes where the family and staff are uncomfortable around and hesitant to use these new technologies. George Vanderbilt outfitted his home with all of the modern technologies of the day.

On the Vanderbilt Family & Friends Tour

Louis XVI Room:  A writing desk takes up a central area of this bedroom, at a large window overlooking the front lawn of Biltmore House. Letter writing in the era was a crucial means of communicating the news of the day. As such, a writing desk is included in each guest room. On “Downton Abbey,” the characters shared letters filled with news of the day at the breakfast table.

Van Dyck Room:  The story of Edith Wharton, a frequent visitor at Biltmore House, is told in the Van Dyck Room. Wharton chronicled changing times, including the emergence of the women’s rights movement and political issues. In “Downton Abbey,” the youngest sister Sybil is portrayed as getting involved in politics and the changing role of women.

Morland Room: In this room, tour hostsdiscuss George and Edith Vanderbilt’s marriage and honeymoon. It’s touching to note that Edith and her three sisters married for love, and were not expected to marry for money or titles (although they all ended up marrying well). In “Downton Abbey,” the eldest daughter Lady Mary is constantly expected and reminded to marry “successfully” in order to keep the family home afloat.

General Themes

Preserving the home:  One of the primary themes in “Downton Abbey” is the importance Lord Grantham and his family place on preserving and maintaining their home for succeeding generations. This has been a prime concern at Biltmore for George Vanderbilt’s descendants.

American heiresses marrying British nobility:  Another central premise in “Downton Abbey” is based on Cora, an American heiress who married Lord Grantham; he needed her money to keep his ancestral home operating. One of the sources for this storyline is “To Marry An English Lord,” a book detailing how Consuelo Vanderbilt (one of George Vanderbilt’s nieces), was one of the first American heiresses to go to Europe in search of a titled husband. She married the Duke of Marlborough, which started a rush of newly wealthy American girls going overseas in hopes of finding husbands (who needed their money).

About the Photo

This is the Servants’ Dining Hall in Biltmore House. Imagine the conversations that took place around that table when George and Edith Vanderbilt lived in the house!

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