The Real Downton Abbey

earlstaffnowdowntownabbeyIf you are a fan of Downton Abbey, and who isn’t these days, you owe yourself some time with a great little book written by the present Countess of Carnarvon, entitled “Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey.”  The book is an account of the life of heiress Lady Almina, who in 1895 married Lord Carnarvon, to become the Fifth Countess at Highclere Castle, the real life setting for Downton.  Lady Almina and her considerable fortune helped prop up the struggling finances of the Fifth Earl of Carnarvon and also allowed for some major improvements to the castle.  The book chronicles the glittering life of balls and social events, along with the strict protocol and daily duties for both the family and the staff.  With the outbreak of The Great War, the castle was turned into a hospital under the direction of Lady Almina, who treated each wounded soldier as an important guest.  She and other titled society women worked tirelessly during the war, spending their own fortunes to run hospitals and charity works, and putting their lives in danger.  The accounts of the horrors of WWI are made all the more grisly when placed in juxtapose with Lady Almina’s previously privileged and frivilous life before the war. Not any family, upstairs nor down, was left untouched by the carnage of WWI; a war which in one day accounted for the death of over 60,ooo soldiers at Somme (France).  The era is captured with unflinching and unsentimental prose, outlining the contributions of an entire nation staggering under the crushing toll of that war.  Interstingly, the family at Highclere seemed to me like a microcosm of the changing world at large: the members of the family were involved in so many of the new inventions (Lord Carnarvon was a gadget nut, who loved the new airplanes and motorcars), Amina became involved in politics, Lady Almina survived the Spanish Flu epidemic,  they entertained at dinner the likes of T. E. Lawrence and Gertrude Bell to discuss Middle East issues, and Lord Carnarvon was a partner with Howard Carter and financial backer for the explorations in Egypt which led to the discovery of King Tutankhamun’s tomb.  Later, the writer Evelyn Waugh coined the phrase “very Highclere,” to mean that something had been superbly carried out.  Lady Fiona Carnarvon has kept the bar high in her account of the indomitable Lady Almina and this very readable history of Highclere Castle.  She expressed the sentiment that the family does not own Highclere, but rather the castle owns them in a sense, and they are merely tenants.  The castle will endure, thanks in part to the popularity of the Downton Abbey show, and to the good stewardship of Lord Carnarvon and his family.  It certainly has a rich history worthy of preserving.



Filed under Book Review

2 responses to “The Real Downton Abbey

  1. Faith

    I must confess that I really had little interest in this book when it was suggested for the book club. A while back I had read The Glitter and the Gold: The American Duchess—in Her Own Words, Consuelo Vanderbilt Balsan’s story of being married off to the Duke of Marlborough in 1895. It’s a terrific book, so I felt like I had covered that subject well enough. After reading this review, I’ll definitely be picking this book up.

    BTW, St. Martin’s Press has published a new edition of The Glitter and the Gold, marketing it like the true story of Downton Abbey. It certainly does have details of the life Consuelo led as the Duchess of Marlborough, but the true gold in the book is her relationship with her mother. Her mother forced her into the marriage with the Duke, and yet she not only comes to terms with that over the years, but even builds a mutually respectful and loving relationship with her mother later in life.

  2. Thanks for the great comment; I am always appreciative of recommendations (or warnings) about other books in the same vein. Sounds like there was a lot of the rich girl married off to the impoverished Englishman with a title in those days….

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