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Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey: The Lost Legacy of Highclere Castle Paperback – December 27, 2011
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A NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER
“Almina was a woman of great charm and courage.”
—New York Times Book Review
“The more interesting and entertaining book is Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey: The Lost Legacy of Highclere Castle. Written by the castle's current countess, Lady Fiona Carnarvon, the Eighth Countess of Carnarvon and great-granddaughter-in-law of Lady Almina, the book is a fascinating look at the woman of the house who turned her castle into a hospital for wounded British soldiers returning from World War I. (It corresponds perfectly with this season's war story line on Downton Abbey.)”
“Gives the juicy backstory behind last year's Emmy-winning 'Masterpiece Theater' drama.”
—New York Times
“If you can’t wait for the new season of ‘Downton Abbey’...this one’s for you....a revealing portrait of the changing times.”
—New York Post
“[A] fascinating insight into how the seriously rich once lived.”
—Newsweek Daily Beast
“The present Lady Carnarvon, who tapped the family archives for her comprehensive research, dramatically captures the estate during the pre-war and war years, and paints a compelling...portrait of Lady Almina.”
About the Author
FIONA, New York Times bestselling author and the 8th Countness of CARNARVON, married Geordie, the 8th Earl of Carnarvon, in 1999, and aceded to Highclere ten years ago upon the death of Geordie's father. Highclere has become one of the most famous houses in England as the location for the PBS series Downton Abbey. She is also the author of the companion piece, Lady Catherine, the Earl, and the Real Downton Abbey.
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The author of this book, the current Countess of Carnarvon, drew largely from primary sources in the Highclere archives. She also examined contemporary periodicals and previous family memoirs and bios. The focus of the book is, as the subtitle indicates, Almina's connection with Highclere. So, it begins with her wedding to the 5th Earl of Carnarvon and ends with his untimely death in 1923, as that event marked the end of Almina's time at Highclere.
There is a concise discussion of Almina's pre-countess life, including her paternity (that Almina was in all likelihood Alfred Rothschild's natural daughter is stated plainly). There is also some background on the 5th Earl: his parents and childhood, and a short history of the Highclere estate. The 5th Earl was in debt when he met Almina and in need of a large infusion of cash, which Rothschild provided.
The book goes on to cover Almina's arrival at Highclere as a 19-year-old bride and her triumphant success as a society hostess, which was something Edwardian women aspired to and were admired for. The visit by the Prince of Wales (later Edward VII) for one of Highclere's famous shoots in 1895 was a major event at Highclere and it is appropriate that it should be included here, even if written of previously in other works. The author describes Almina's extensive redecorating for the occasion (the green silk drawing-room walls were hers) and, using record books from the Highclere archives, the food purchased for the visit and what it cost - noting that the bill came to four times the annual salary of longtime butler (the position was known as "house steward" at Highclere), Streatfield. The author discusses how all this entertaining created extra work for the staff, especially before Almina had electricity and bathrooms with hot and cold running water installed. Of equal interest to me was the chapter on life below stars at Highclere during Almina's time. She describes many of the indoor servants, outdoor servants, and estate workers, their duties, living and working conditions, interaction with "upstairs," romances and marriages between staff, leisure time, etc.
A large section of the book is devoted to Highclere and the family during WWI and its immediate aftermath, including Lady Carnarvon's conversion of the castle to a hospital. The great library served as a relaxing room for the men, who were waited upon by footman and generally treated as invited guests at one of the prewar house parties, giving them a chance to forget the horrors of the war for a little while. Of all the stately homes to serve as hospitals, probably only Highclere had fashionable nurse's uniforms of crushed-strawberry-pink wool. Almina later moved the hospital to London at her own (that is, Rothschild's) expense where they had more room, better equipment and greater access to specialists.
The final chapter covers Almina's life after widowhood, but the theme of the book is Highclere and as she was no longer directly connected with it except as an occasional visitor, this section is brief. As I am not the least interested in Almina's love life, I was not at all disappointed that the lurid details "William" is so anxious for us to hear about are not included.
It's written in a breezy, personal style. The Downton connection is not exploited; other than the title (which is often the publisher's, not the author's, choice), Downton is mentioned only in the prologue (1 sentence) and in acknowledgements. I would guess, though, that Downton fans interested in how the real-life place where the series is filmed actually operated during roughly the same time period will enjoy it. The photos are marvelous. A family tree from, at least, the 4th Earl through the 6th Earl would have been useful.
Any biography is a story being told, and each story has a unique voice. In this case, the voice is a member of the Carnarvon family. She seems to draw from source documents such as journals, letters, and other historical references to create a picture of Almina Wombwell who became the wife of the Fifth Earl of Carnarvon. (Yes, this was the same Lord Carnarvon who worked with Howard Carter and discovered King Tut's tomb in Egypt.) This book is told primarily as Lady Almina's story after her marriage, although it can't help but touch on the story lines of many of the other principle players.
While the book is historical in nature, that doesn't make it dry reading. There is scandal (Almina was most likely the illegitimate daughter of the wealthy Alfred de Rothschild), wildly fabulous wealth (Almina lived a lavish and luxurious lifestyle prior to WWI), Egyptian adventures, and ultimately heartbreak as WWI touched almost every family in Britain. There is also the inspiring story of how Lady Almina used her connections and wealth during the war to create a hospital first at her home and then in London to help wounded British soldiers receive much needed treatment if they were lucky enough to make it back to England.
The book also does one more thing which I appreciate as a US reader of this period of history. This book helps set many of the individual events which are taking place into their larger historical context. I think that's important for reading this particular narrative While it is very much the story of one woman, it also a description of a lifestyle which has slipped into the pages of history in less than a hundred years.
Since the book is written by a member of the Carnarvon family, I had expected that the portrait which the book painted to be flattering to the family. I felt that the author did a good job of balancing the good and the bad. The book depicts the wealth, privilege and connections of the family, but it also describes many of their individual faults. It's not the ultimate resource to that time period, but I don't feel that it's intended to teach that kind of history. It's one woman's powerful story in an era when women held little power. Fans of Downton Abbey will come away with a new respect for the real life inspirations of the characters and the period which the program depicts.