Debut Author Snapshot: Anthony Russell

Posted by Goodreads on November 5, 2013
Every branch of Anthony Russell's family tree hangs heavy with wealth—even the relatives who left the UK for America turned their old pounds into stacks of dollars. In his debut memoir, Outrageous Fortune, the British writer chronicles his extraordinary childhood, much of which was spent on the spectacular grounds of Leeds Castle, built in the 12th century in Kent, England, and once home to royalty. The author and his parents lived on the property because his maternal grandmother, the indomitable (and incredibly wealthy) Granny Baillie, bought and renovated the castle. Russell's account is also a story of a changing world, in which an entrenched aristocracy is shaken up by the social and political upheaval of the '60s versus "the castle way." Russell's wry, understated voice makes him an ideal guide through this rarified world.

Goodreads: You spent years as a musician and actor—when did you start to think about writing this memoir?

Anthony Russell: In my fifties I found myself thinking about some of my Granny B's more eccentric habits, and the one that stood out for me at the time was one of her favorite weekend "ceremonies," which I thought was one of the funniest. Granny B had a fondness for turning what most people would regard as a simple affair, that is to say, the placing of baby ducks into a pond, into grand theater. I called my story "The Launching of the Ducks." It was only a few pages long, but it seemed to give more pleasure than I had expected to the few people I showed it to, so I wrote more. At that time it never occurred to me that I was trying to write a book or that I would end up writing a book.

"My nanny's name was Irene Penney. I never met her parents or her sister, who lived in Birmingham...Her presence was utterly reassuring, her manner always calm, and she was a fount of vital information about all things, important and otherwise."
I did not write a diary as a child. I was far too busy keeping up with William Tell and Robin Hood on TV, learning cricket and as many other sports as I could cram in. Any free moments beyond these crucial activities were devoted to the study of the latest and greatest popular music then playing on Nanny's radio in the nursery. I never knew if Nanny liked or loathed the music I obliged her to listen to. All I know is that she never said "no" when asked.

I never throughout my life spoke about what it was like growing up at Leeds Castle—unless specifically asked. I can count on one hand the number of times it happened. In my experience practically the last question anybody ever asks is "Do tell me about your childhood." Maybe that's why people write memoirs!

GR: Tell us about "the castle way." Do you find yourself still adhering to it?

KB: In a nutshell, "the castle way" is a metaphor I use in the book to describe the all-encompassing, all-powerful, semifeudal-system-meets-benevolent-dictatorship by which my grandmother ran the lives of all those who fell within her sphere of influence and control. That sphere included a select group of friends and advisers, my parents, my brothers, Nanny, me, assorted aunts and uncles, all members of staff, and, in some ways, the very air we breathed.

In 1948, Lady Baillie commissioned the French artist Etienne Drian to paint a "conversation piece" to be hung in the drawing room. The portrait features Russell's mother, Susan (left), Lady Baillie (center), and his aunt, Pauline (right).
"The castle way" no longer exists. It came to a close in 1974, when my grandmother died. I cannot of course adhere to something that is no more. However, everything about me is infused by what I learned and experienced as a child, just like everyone else.

There are many people in England, some of whom I know, who still live in very large country estates surrounded by beautiful parkland, but I believe very few are still able to maintain the level of comfort and grandeur they may have done in the past. Many of these large country houses are open to the public and are run as businesses, as is the Leeds Castle Foundation.

GR: From shows like Downton Abbey to memoirs like yours, it seems as if the lives of castle dwellers revolve solely around social gatherings and running the castle! Outside the round of card games, dinners, balls, and shooting parties, how did someone like your grandmother spend their time?

AR: I make it very clear in Outrageous Fortune that Granny B lavishes extreme care and pays a great deal of attention to the lives and welfare of not just her family and friends, but also all the people who throughout her life worked for her in her many houses. In today's terms you might say she was a sort of corporate CEO, employing up to a hundred people, all paid well, comfortably housed, health care always attended to. If ever there was a problem, she was there with her crew to fix it. Yes, Granny B lived a life of extreme luxury, very similar to the Downton Abbey family, but by my estimate at least half, perhaps more, of her life was devoted to the maintenance, upkeep, and general running of what I sometimes refer to as her "Empire".

GR: The title of your book comes, of course, from Hamlet's soliloquy. When did you first become aware that the luxury of your upbringing came with certain "slings and arrows"?

AR: Outrageous fortune? Yes; I was born into outrageous luxury, outrageous wealth, outrageous comfort in all things—at home, school, holidays; no stone left unturned to ensure everything went smoothly. Everything was done for me. What could go wrong?

Imbibing without a care from the "Leeds Castle luxury brew" is what could go wrong. The brew, a highly potent beverage manufactured exclusively at Leeds Castle, came without any kind of warning on the side of the tin. Not even a caution for a young lad to drink with care because someday, possibly in the near future, the luxury brew will cease production and you will be on your own.

The slings and arrows periodically rose to the surface throughout my teens, causing a minor ripple of anxiety but never hit me between the eyes until my trust fund ran out for the first time in my twenties.

Anthony Russell in front of Leeds Castle in 2010.
GR: Let's say the 80 percent estate tax hadn't gone into effect and you'd found yourself the inheritor of Leeds Castle. Would you have tried to maintain it in the grand old tradition, all the way to present day?

AR: Of course! Who wouldn't want to live at Leeds Castle in the same way that my grandmother did? Nothing would have given me more pleasure than to continue her traditions of hospitality and friendship. Reality, though, spoke differently, and Granny B ended up leaving the castle to the nation as a private foundation in 1974. My mother continued to live there on weekends until her death in 2001, and I went to stay with her all the time. To begin with, it was a little strange to see the public wandering over the golf course or croquet lawn just when I was hoping to play a game myself! But I soon became used to the fact that what I had known and loved as a child was now gone, and gradually I came to the understanding that I had been sensationally lucky to have been born into something that only very few can, or will, ever know. So when I go back to Leeds now, I do so with a sense of gratitude and a desire for the place I love so deeply to continue to enjoy its place in the sun.

Comments Showing 1-22 of 22 (22 new)

dateDown arrow    newest »

message 1: by Beullah (new)

Beullah I would love to read this book.

message 2: by Sonali (new)

Sonali V I would like to read it too.

message 3: by Nancy (new)

Nancy I too would like to read this book.

message 4: by Pat (new)

Pat This sounds interesting!

message 5: by Patty (new)

Patty Campbell I've been fortunate to have visited Leeds Castle several years ago. This book will go on my to read list for sure.

message 6: by Joanne (new)

Joanne I am going to find this book and read it as soon as possible.

message 7: by Michele (new)

Michele Deppe fascinating!

message 8: by Patty (new)

Patty Campbell For those of you who like saving money, I just pre-ordered the book on Amazon at a discounted rate.

message 9: by Marie. (new)

Marie. Tevelde Going to Amazon and pre order for my IPad kindel

message 10: by Gill (new)

Gill Clark I was privileged to know the green keeper at Leeds castle in the late 1970/1980's as we live in kent, and got to visit Leeds castle, and today it is a wonderful place to visit with my children and grandchildren.
Looking forward to reading this book on my kindle, off to pre book now.

message 11: by Phyllis (new)

Phyllis Langseth I live in Minnesota, taught English and visited Leed's Castle on one of my visits to England and was very curious about the people who had lived there. I must read this book! Exciting to think about it...Outrageous Fortune, I look forward to you!!

message 12: by Judy (new)


message 13: by Angie (new)

Angie Sounds interesting!

message 14: by Aranka (new)

Aranka Gornall ament bentoff Can't wait to read about the baby ducks!

message 15: by Pam (new)

Pam Killinger Wonder how he's making a living now?

message 16: by Janet (new)

Janet Finn Waiting to read it!

message 17: by Roger (new)

Roger Dunn From: "Regord
About: "Outrageous Fortune" seems to have echoes of Evelyn Waugh's "Brideshead Revisited", that modern classic novel of English artistocratic life and wealth in pre WW2 - But "Brideshead" was informed fiction, and this book is real life ... and a must read.
Interesting how a kind of fairy-tale nostalgia grows about that over-privileged world, and its escapist appeal ("Downton Abbey" "Upstairs Downstairs" on TV). And it's a still-growing genre of romantic fiction, and historical novels too.

message 18: by Manjul (new)

Manjul Mehta Would definitely like to read this book.

message 19: by Roxane (new)

Roxane Twisdale Lookin to read all things english..,

message 20: by Anita (new)

Anita I would love to read this book and dream of a luxury life (without the upkeep).

message 21: by Sue (new)

Sue Phagan I will read this book. It is right up my alley!

message 22: by Susan (new)

Susan What a beautiful 'conversation piece'! Yes, castle budget/life here I come.

back to top