Bestselling author Gill Paul returns with a brilliant novel about Lady Evelyn Herbert, the woman who took the very first step into the tomb of Pharaoh Tutankhamun, and who lived in the real Downton Abbey, Highclere Castle, and the long after-effects of the Curse of Pharaohs.
Jenny: We’re in our second episode of Encore, the new show for Binge Reading On Patreon supporters, talking to favorite authors, people who’ve already been on the podcast, about their latest release.
And today we’ve got international best seller Gill Paul who’s already been on the podcast twice before talking about her latest book, The Collector’s Daughter,
Gill’s previous JOBR shows:
Gill Paul’s Famous Fabulous Lives, from November 2019: https://thejoysofbingereading.com/gill-paul-famous-fabulous-lives/
And: Love and Betrayal from September 2020: https://thejoysofbingereading.com/jackie-kennedy/
I love the way Gill makes historical events come alive in her fiction, and this book is no exception.
The Collector’s Daughter is a dual timeline novel moving between the 1920s and the 1970s telling the story of Lady Evelyn Herbert, the English aristocrat who was involved with the opening of Tutankhamun’s tomb in the 1920s, and went on to live through the long-term after-effects of the supposed Curse of the Pharaohs
She’s also got the claim to fame of having grown up in the ‘real’ Downton Abbey, Highclere Castle, where the popular TV series was filmed.
Gill, It’s great to have you with us again.
Jenny: So welcome to the show Gill, and tell us about Pharaoh’s tomb and Lady Eve part in it all.
Gill: Thanks so much for inviting me on the journey. It’s lovely to talk to you. Evelyn was there with her father, the Earl of Carnarvon and Howard Carter when the tomb was discovered and opened in 1922. And all the evidence is that they sneaked in by night without the Egyptian authorities watching over them
Lady Eve first to enter tomb
And the Eve was the first one to crawl in and she was a young lady from the English aristocracy. And I thought ‘Gosh’, what would it have been like for her, I’d always been interested in Egyptian stories from school days, but it only really came home to me in 2011 when I visited Egypt. And I went to the Valley of the Kings.
We went down that long corridor that Eve and her father and Howard Carter would have gone down in 1922 and saw where his tomb had been and then went up to Cairo and saw all the artefacts in the Egyptian museum.
And that was staggering. I mean the enormous wealth of all the gold tombs and the funeral masks and the jewelry, and then little personal details like Tutankhamun’s had sandals that pictures of Nubians on the soles, the Nubians were the enemies of the Egyptians so every time he walked, he was walking on his enemies.
I loved all the little personal touches I saw in the tomb. That’s what really brought it to life for me.
Jenny: It’s amazing. Now, one of the themes of the story is penetrates the whole story really is the long-term belief that there was some sort of curse involved in opening the tomb and Lady Evelyn did actually suffer quite a lot of personal misfortune in her life, including being involved in a massive car accident, which resulted in a series of small TIA’s, as they’re called and later more serious strokes.
And part of the story is her as an older lady in the 1970s, when her memory is impaired with memory loss and things, that’s an interesting part of it because quite a significant part of the story is told by this older character who’s impaired.
That was obviously something you deliberately chose to handle that way.
Two photographs bookmarked life
Gill: My inspiration for this novel when I decided to write about Lady Eve’s part and this huge historical event or two photographs that kind of bookmarked her life.
Eve at tomb entrance with her fatherand
There’s the photograph outside the tomb in 1922 with Howard Carter and her father. And her standing there that made me realize how much she had been part of the discovery, because it wasn’t reported at the time.
It was reported as a double act between Carter and Carnarvon. And then this is another photograph of her in 1972, the opening of the exhibition at the British Museum. And she’s standing beside the Tutankhamun mask, the famous gold funeral mask, and she looks slightly dazed, and it might just be in the flashbulbs.
But then I read that she had this series of strokes and brain incidents, and I thought, gosh, these two photographs kind of bookmark her life.
And I wanted to write about the way her life was affected by being part of the Tutankhamun discovery. And, I didn’t straight away write it as a dual timeline.
I tried to write it as a chronological story, but of course, then there’s a big chunk of the middle of Evelyn’s life, but wasn’t really going to be part of my story, which is why I settled in the end on this dual timeline going backwards and forwards.
Now it was a difficult decision really to write about somebody whose memory is impaired by stroke, but it did seem to me to be part of this story she did, as you say, have this car accident in 1935, that certainly affected her health.
It was reported in The Times at the time. And, it was just part of her life, part of who she was. I mean, you touched on the curse story. I did toy with whether to include it, because I wasn’t, I’m not really interested in writing sort of magic realism.
She wondered about the ‘curse’
Are there ‘ghosts in the room’ type books, but it was such a big part of the way that Eve saw the story. She certainly wondered if the curse could have been part of it. And there are newspaper interviews, she gives where she says, for example, that she offered to release her husband or fiancé Brograve from their engagement in case she was cursed.
So, because I was writing from her point of view and she clearly believed in it, it was something that I had to address. It was part of the way it was reported at the time. It made all the newspaper headlines, you know, Curse Strikes Again, every time somebody died, who’d been inside the tomb. So, yes, I couldn’t avoid it at all.
Jenny: Yes, her father did die from a very unusual – what was really very minor accident very soon after the tomb was opened. I guess that might’ve been one of the ways in which it started.
Gill: Well, it strikes us as an unusual way to die, but of course, in these pre antibiotic days, septicemia was a very real and, and you know, a major cause of death.
He got a mosquito bite on his cheek, for those of you who don’t know the story, and he nicked it while shaving and he got blood poisoning septicemia, and there was nothing they could do about that.
A young fit healthy man might’ve fought it off, but he had poor health from a car accident that he’d had in 1909 and he had breathing problems and he just wasn’t strong enough to fight it off. So it wasn’t that unusual.
Jenny: Just that Fleet Street wanted to write it up.
Gill: Yes exactly.
Undoubtedly the ‘first global media event’
Jenny: The current Lady Carnarvon describes the opening of the tomb as the first global media event. Would you think that’s accurate?
Gill: It absolutely was. It’s impossible to overstate how big the story was at 1922 and 1923, right through the twenties actually.
And one of the reasons is because of advances in print technology, which meant that stories could be cabled around the world instantly and Harry Burton’s photographs, iconic photographs taken inside the tomb.
So people could not even just read about it. They could see these treasures in place, in the tomb. And it was massive. I mean, it really changed so much. It changed fashions of the day. You know, the flappers started wearing the black kohl eyeliner with the flicks at the side and, and Cobra bracelets that slunk up their arms.
Um, it changed it influenced architecture that art deco architecture has very clearly got the kind of hieroglyphic Phoenix wings shapes in it. All kinds of merchandise was made out of Egyptian designs.
There were stage shows. The first film came in 1932. Boris Karloff starred in The Mummy, which is a classic; even Roosevelt named his dog King Tut.
So, I mean, it was everywhere. It was absolutely everywhere.
Jenny: That’s amazing. The Carnarvon home, which now has got a claim to fame with being the site for the Downton Abbey TV series, where it was filmed. They’ve still got quite a large Egypt collection there at their home at Highclere, don’t they?
Gill: Well, here’s the thing. When I visited Highclere, I was surprised how small it is.
Viewing Highclere – location of Downton Abbey series
Jenny: Oh, really?
Gill: In the show the rooms look huge and that’s just camera and angles. They’re actually – the drawing room, the dining room, the smoking room – they’re all quite small.
So I’m guessing they must just put the cameras down this side. The central atrium, which rises up to the height of the building is spectacular.
The rest of it is quite small and the Egyptian collection is not huge. It’s down in the basement. Two or three connected rooms. And they’ve only got replicas of Tutankhamun artifacts there. They don’t have any real ones, of course, but they have some bits and pieces of pottery and broken jewelry, mainly that Lord Carnarvon had found on earlier dates before the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb.
The visit to Highclere was fascinating to me because I’d written about this already before I saw them, there were some hidden cupboards in the wall between the drawing room and the smoking room that some artifacts were founded in the 1980s I think so after my story took place.
But I thought, no, that’s one of the times I have to move my timeline back so that I can have Eve there when those cupboards were open.
And I got to see these cupboards. And once again, they were smaller than I’d imagined them, but just set into the recess. In the doorway, either side of the doorway between these two rooms.
And it was fascinating to see that. I’m very glad I got there. I mean, it’s beautiful Highclere. It’s just smaller than it looks on the tele.
Jenny: Yes. And there was bitterness about the distribution of the find between the Egyptian government and, uh, the British explorers wasn’t there? I read somewhere that when they opened, they put them away almost, in slightly ‘We’re fed up with the Egyptians, we don’t want to know anything about the Egyptians’ attitude. They’d almost got forgotten about them because of this bitterness that was going on.
Returning cultural treasures still controversial
Gill: At Highclere you mean?
Gill: Well, it was hugely political, of course, what happened to the Tutankhamun relics and they couldn’t have been seen to have any at Highclere. The rules were changing at that time. Lord Carnarvon and Howard Carter fully expected when they discovered the tomb to get a decent share of it.
But Egypt was struggling. In fact, it had just become independent of its British protectorate, but Britain still held a grip, still had ministers in power, in different ministries because they wanted to keep control of the Suez Canal, which was a very important trading route for them to their colony in India.
And so Egypt was half independent and not really, and they got more and more cross that Lord Carnarvon and Howard Carter were claiming the discovery of the tomb as a British triumph. And they were like, ‘Hang on. It’s our own land. It’s our ancestors that made all these artifacts and it became hugely political at the time, as it still is today.’
Why is that? Western museums hanging onto artifacts from all these places around the world. You know, in fact, I read it the weekend that the Smithsonian is giving back a lot of its artifacts, including the Benin brought bronzes are going back to Nigeria, which of course it’s where they should be.
The British museum on the other hand, is lending some of the bronzes to Nigeria for an exhibition. That’s like the thief who plunders your home lending you back your paintings and sculptures or whatever.
It’s very bizarre to me that we still hang on to these things, but yes, you know, I think it was felt at Highclere that there was something a bit shameful about the, and also because of the sad way that Lord Carnarvon died and then his brother very quickly afterwards, it maybe wasn’t a period in time that they wanted to dwell on after the 1920.
The Anna Mansur character in the book
Jenny: You’ve got another character in there, the Anna Mansur character who appears in the 1970s. Now this is a relatively young woman who says she’s researching the whole archaeological aspect of it as a representative of the Egyptian government. And she wants Lady Evelyn to give her recollections of it.
But there’s a certain sinister aspect to this character, even right at the beginning. The reader is a little bit unsure of just what her credentials are and whether she’s fully truthful in the way that she’s approaching things. And she remains slightly mysterious all the way through.
She’s a very good device for linking Evelyn to the finds in the 1970s. Tell us a bit about Anna.
Gill: Anna has a couple of functions in the novel and she is representative of a lot of Egyptian thought, which is that countries like Britain should be giving back the artifacts that they have, like the Rosetta Stone, that amazing stone that was found by Napoleon’s troops in Egypt. The one that allows us to read hieroglyphics is still sitting in the British Museum and it’s such a big part of Egyptian history. It’s just really hard to fathom.
Anna does represent a school of Egyptian thought that we should be finding out where these artifacts are and getting them back, but she also, as you say, she has a narrative drive in the novel to link the two stories and, and to give a kind of drive forwards.
You know, as readers, we hopefully wonder can we trust her? What’s she doing? And where is the missing item that they’re looking for from the tomb? So, yes, she has that dual function.
Jenny: It’s a very interesting twist at the end, for those who are going to read the book, there’s a great way that it ends, which of course we’re not going to tell you about, but it was …a
Gill: No, no, no.
The Carnarvons still part of social set
Jenny: great twist. And it comes like through to today because, you know, when I was starting to research what we were going to talk about today, I just happened to also to be reading a New Yorker story about Tina Brown’s new book, The Palace Papers. And I think I’d been vaguely aware that the Queens racing manager was one of the Carnarvons, but it all fell together because Eve’s brother was called Porchey.
He was the one who inherited and I seen the racing manager that the queen had until the early 2000’s was also known as Porchey.
And it’s funny how the aristocracy, you can see how it more or less just moves on from generation to generation. Doesn’t it?
Gill: Yes it does. Yes. The racing manager was Eve’s nephew, Eve in my novel that you know, her nephew.
Gill: There have been rumors that he did have an affair with the Queen because they were very close. They spent a lot of time together. They traveled to the States together to look at breeding techniques and training techniques and so those rumors were present.
Personally, you know, the Queen, I just can’t see it for one second. The Queen is all about duty and honor and upholding the standards of the monarchy.
So it just makes no sense to me at all.
But this was back in the sixties and seventies, when it was known that Prince Philip was having various mistresses around town, so I suppose the tabloids press were just looking for something on the Queen as well.
And she, she loved horses, are the great love of her life. And, so she was spending a lot of time with her racing manager who happens to be the nephew of my heroine in The Collector’s Daughter.
Logic and science discount curse story
Jenny: Yes. Do you yourself put any credence on the curse stories? Where do, where do you stand on the so-called curse stories.
Gill: Oh, my personal beliefs. I tried to leave it so that the reader can step in and decide what they think about
Gill: But I do say in the Afterword that there were 26 people present at the opening of the tomb. And apart from Eve, they were in middle or late middle age. Ten years later, only six of them had died.
And statistically for the era, it was probably less than you would expect.
You know, fewer people who’ve visited Tutankhamun’s tomb died in the next, you know, decades than would have been in the normal population.
So, it’s hard to find real evidence for anything supernatural going on.
They did look at various theories at the time, every time somebody died, there’d be scandals, you know, ‘The Curse Strikes Again.’
And they did wonder whether there might’ve been some kind of microscopic spores in the air, in the tomb or bat droppings, but none of these theories hold up at all. And statistically, it doesn’t seem to have any basis at all.
Jenny: Yes. So just that’s fantastic book to read. I really recommend it to people. What are you working on now?
The Manhattan Girls is next
Gill: I have written a book called The Manhattan girls, which is set in 1920s, New York. I’m loving the 1920s at the moment. You can see a theme here.
And this is about four women who formed a bridge group. And those four women were Dorothy Parker, the wittiest women in the world, Jane Grant, who was the first female reporter at the New York Times, and one of the co-founders of the New Yorker magazine, There’s Winifred Lenihan, who was a Broadway actress, starring in George Burnard Shaw’s premiere, and a woman called Peggy Leach who went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for History twice.
So these are four women who had extraordinary careers for their age. I mean, this is a hundred years ago and all of them were massively successful and they were also struggling to combine careers with relationships.
And, so I write about their struggles, but also about their friendship through this bridge group, which did actually happen by the way, this is based on a real bridge group and the real events.
But as I do with my novels, I’ve fictionalized the women’s lives a little bit, given them thoughts and dialogue and feelings.
And I had great fun writing. It’s daunting writing dialogue for the wittiest woman in the world. So that was my challenge in this novel.
And that one’s coming out in August in the UK and us, and I’m hoping it’s going to be at the same time in Australia and New Zealand, but I’ll let you know, Jenny.
Jenny: It sounds fabulous. Did that take a lot of research? It sounds like it would’ve done.
Researching 1920s New York scene
Gill: Do you know, I just start by reading all the books I can find. And I’m obviously about Dorothy Parker there was loads. About Winifred Lenihan. there’s very little. So I had a bit more room to play with her character. Peggy Leach, the one who won the Pulitzer, she’s interesting because she had written three novels in that period.
And they’re all about relationships and about the times. And so I could get a sense of her personality through reading her fiction.
And then of course, I think, gosh, I wonder what people make of my personality, reading my fiction, because you do get a sense of the author when you read a book.
Not that it’s directly autobiographical, but you can tell a bit about their worldview and how they think about things. So.
Jenny: Yeah, that’s fantastic. My dear. Thank you so, so much, for your time. It’s going to be the first one in our new Encore series.
Gill: Thank you so much, Jenny, I’m delighted to talk to you again. It’s been lovely.
Jenny: Bye for now.