Despite the sales hook to tie the book to the show Downton Abbey, The Countess of Carnavon delivers in her Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey: The Lost Legacy of Highclere Castle. It helps that Lady Almina’s Highclere Castle doubles as Downton Abbey on the show.
I was concerned that Carnarvon’s narrative style would be dry and she would take on a tone of an academic, but thankfully that wasn’t the case. She wrote about her predecessor with panache which made her book a delightful read. Although the blurbs on the back of Lady Almina lead a reader to think the lady in question was the sole inspiration for Lady Cora Crawley there were some major differences. While the fictional Lady Cora is American in origin, Lady Almina was raised in both England and France. The commonality is that the Lords, both fictional and not, saved their beloved country estates through advantageous marriages to women of lower social statuses with indulgent daddies. In Almina’s case her father was acknowledged to be Alfred de Rothschild, lifelong bachelor of the famous Rothschild clan who had a clandestine affair with Almina’s married mother. Lady Wombwell’s marriage was on the rocks because of her husband’s financial disgrace. After Almina’s birth Rothschild was named her godfather which allowed him to spend lavishly on his only child.
Despite coming from her less than an illustrious background Almina appeared very secure in taking on the role as the new Countess of Carnarvon even though she was only nineteen and her husband a decade older than her. His father, the 4th Earl, had an impressive political career and emphasized the idea of public service to his son. He also began the tradition of weekend entertaining at his estate where politics and business were on the agenda to be discussed between a hunt and formal dinner which the new Earl and Countess continued. Keep in mind innovations to transpiration made such working weekend social occasions finally feasible. The Countess had a lot to live up to but managed to host the then Prince of Wales, future King Edward VII, at Highclere to a great success. In fact some of the decorating refurbishments Almina added to the castle remain to this day according to the present Countess Carnarvon.
Unlike the Crawley patriarch, the 5th Earl of Carnarvon did father a son, as well as one daughter; ergo the legacy of the estate was never in question. Much like the Lady Crawleys and their Downton Abbey of lore, with the input and dedication of Almina (along with the financial backing of her father/godfather) Highclere was turned into a hospital during World War I. Almina viewed nursing as her calling which was a good thing since her husband had a lifetime of bad health. Despite his various afflictions and illnesses he traveled to Egypt to spend most winters. If you know anything about Egyptology you will be familiar with the Earl’s name since Howard Carter and he discovered the tomb of Tutankhamum…which was accompanied by an alleged curse (Carnarvon doesn’t mention it per se, but she does tell the famous tale about the Earl’s dog).
My few complaints about the book involve wishing the Countess gave more details about Almina once she left Highclere and remarried – at least some information about her death in May of 1969. Also there was at least one mistake in the various photo sections; one identifying an obvious illustration as a photo taken prior to the Countess’ first trip down the aisle and another with a questionable year identification. I’ll give the author a break on the year but discussing an illustration as if it is a photo is a mistake that should have been spotted during the editing process.
Overall I believe Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey is a must read for any fan of Julian Fellowes’ Downton Abbey. Further, it is a decent book about the history of a prevalent English manor during the transformative years of the First World War. The book focuses on other family members besides Almina which broadens the scope of the war. For instance, several pages are devoted to her brother-in-law whose war exploits included being friends with the man later known as Lawrence of Arabia – T. H. Lawrence. There is also reference to a man, prepare yourselves Downton Heads, who is earnest (he’s a chaplain actually) who had a war injury that left him with a limp that required a cane.
On a side note, if you haven’t seen Downton Abbey then order it up from Netflix or buy it pronto. In my social circle it has proven to be a crowd pleaser for all ages, and surprisingly, all sexes as well.
Westerfield © 2012