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[560] Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey – Fiona, The Countess of Carnarvon

almina

” She had no qualms about spending prodigious amounts of money to get things done. Most of us come up against the frustration of having ideas and aims with insufficient resources to fulfil them. By virtue of her doting and incredibly generous father, a lack of funds was never an obstacle so she ‘thought big’ in life and, whilst her first husband was alive, certainly succeeded. ” (Epilogue, 288)

During the filming of Downton Abbey‘s first season, the current Countess of Carnarvon takes up the interest of one of the Highclere castle’s legacies, one of its most famous former inhabitants, the 5th Countess of Carnarvon, Almina Carnarvon née Wombwell. An extremely wealthy heiress of industrialist Alfred de Rothschild, the then nineteen-year-old Almina was contracted in marriage to the 5th Earl of Carnarvon in 1895. Although her paternity was dubious, since she was illegitimate child of her mother, the enormous marriage settlement bestowed on her by her father was a turning point in the Carnarvon family’s fortunes, as debts were cleared and the estate put on a much sounder footing.

Almina arrived at Highclere as an outsider, but an enormous sense of excitement and self-confidence. How could she not, when recent events suggested that she had finally managed to combine the social prestige brought by her marriage with the fabulous wealth of her father? . . . But she was only nineteen and this role, this title, was so much bigger than she was. She was the Countess . . . (Ch.4, p.43)

Indeed, her combined social prestige and wealth soon secured her place in high society, something that was barred from her due to her dubious rearing. Fairly soon Lady Almina becomes the hostess of the most extravagant parties and soirées. Entertained under the ceiling of Highclere are dignitaries, intellectuals, social stars, and royalties. She’s also keen on the rules governing the interactions below stairs that are at least as elaborate as those that prevailed upstairs. The first third of the book captures Almina’s propulsion to Ladyship as well as the hierarchy structure of servants in Highclere.

This was an era before public healthcare, when all hospitals were funded by wealthy individuals or charitable organisations. Women like Almina and the other Society ladies who stopped in to help with the huge numbers of war wounded were not just on some vainglorious mission; they were fulfilling a need that wouldn’t have been met without their actions. (Ch.11, p.143)

During the First World War, lady Almina devoted an extraordinary amount of energy and effort to helping others, with no thought for the cost in terms of money and time. Transforming Highclere into a hospital with an erudite staff and the latest equipment, and later moving the entire operation to London, she helped save countless lives. But the middle section of the book concerning the hospital is also bogged down by tedium of the war, which I trudge through with confusion. Her meticulous nursing of her husband saved his life for a few occasions; they long and happy marriage gave him the opportunity to continue working out in Egypt to pursue his passion. Lord Carnarvon’s discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun is still the only Ancient Egyptian royal burial site ever found intact. But as interesting these accounts were, they didn’t take place in Highclere Castle.

So maybe the book is really about Almina when she was still the Countess of Carnarvon. After her husband passed, her son become the 6th Earl of Carnarvon and his wife the new Countess. The book is interesting to read and the first half that delves into the upstairs/downstairs life around Highclere is engrossing. The many picture inserts also show how a grand house was run. But Fiona Carnarvon obviously fawns on her subject. Under her pen Almina is a candidate for sainthood who has done no wrong. She downplays on the high-profile court case between her new husband and his ex-wife. So there you have it, an incomplete, sanitized story of this woman who lived for another 40 years after she ceased to be the Countess.

310 pp. Broadway Books. Paper. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

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