Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey

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Hodder & Stoughton, Sep 29, 2011 - Biography & Autobiography - 320 pages
1 Review
Lady Fiona Carnarvon became the chatelaine of Highclere Castle - the setting of the hit series Downton Abbey - eight years ago. In that time she's become fascinated by the rich history of Highclere, and by the extraordinary people who lived there over the centuries. One person particularly captured Fiona's imagination - Lady Almina, the 5th Countess of Carnarvon. Almina was the illegitimate daughter of banking tycoon Alfred de Rothschild. She was his only daughter and he doted on her. She married the 5th Earl of Carnarvon, at 19, with an enormous dowry. At first, life at Highclere was a dizzying mix of sumptuous banquets for 500 and even the occasional royal visitor. Almina oversaw 80 members of staff - many of whom came from families who had worked at Highclere for generations. But when the First World War broke out, life at Highclere changed forever. History intervened and Almina and the staff of Highclere were thrown into one of the most turbulent times of the last century. Almina was forced to draw on her deepest reserves of courage in order to ensure her family, the staff and the castle survived. This is the remarkable story of a lost time. But Highclere remains and in this book, Fiona weaves Almina's journey and those of her family into the heritage and history of one of England's most exquisite Victorian castles.

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This book is slick and has glossy images. But as a comprehensive biography of Almina, the 5th Countess of Carnarvon it’s lacking in substance, facts seem to fall from the wind. Among the nice pictures about a dozen images repeated from a previous book. Sadly, several of the Almina images aren’t of Almina at all. What irks is that it hardly amounts to Almina’s half-life – and much of it is only half- told. And as the cut off point in time is 1924, the rest of Almina’s life, of almost fifty years is abandoned. Almina’s financial skulduggery, her offences against her own children and her carnal affairs (outlined in another recently published biography of the Countess) are, of course, not mentioned. Her relationship with Lord Carnarvon in this portrait lacks any kind of sure grasp of either personality. Both were complicated human beings. The Highclere ghost writer obviously could find nothing to say, and could not expose the truth that the parties were not in love or lovers and that they simply despised each other. Their near 30 year marriage was the ultimate sham marriage.
There are some good elements to praise, individual soldiers’ stories from Almina’s term as the matron of Highclere Military Hospital and 48 Bryanston Square, a Royal Flying Corps hospital, during the Great War. It was noteworthy to read the names of a few of the surgeons who operated at Highclere and Bryanston Square hospitals. Whilst it was interesting-ish to read of the endless exploits of Carnarvon’s half-sibling Aubrey and his wife Mary and the Dowager Elsie and the Burghcleres (Almina despised them all, except Aubrey, whom she loved and wanted instead of being saddled with the Earl), this alas greatly overshadows Almina’s own story. The Highclere ghost writer slips in casual, matter of fact references about Almina here and there – when the narrative is already top heavy with these much lesser figures from her time period. For Downton fans there’s dross on real life servants including one called Bates (a name of a servant also in the Abbey). That said, the insight into downstairs has merit. Almina spent long periods down in the servant’s quarters at the start of her marriage- hiding from Lord Carnarvon – as she was so scared of him!!
The book skates over with frivolity (in a mere sentence) the important trip by the Carnarvons to America in 1903 and much else of importance is omitted. The narrative also replicates the monumental error of placing Lord Carnarvon's serious motor car accident in Germany EIGHT YEARS before it actually happened and citing this incorrectly as the catalyst for him first digging in Egypt. book disappointed most was regarding evidence (and thus exposing the complete lack of it) on Alfred de Rothschild (the ghost writer irritating refers to him, as “ Sir Alfred”) as Almina’s biological father. Here the official testimony offers NO evidence whatsoever to support Alfred as Almina’s father, indeed the ghost writer declares “. the question of Almina’s paternity can’t be conclusively determined with any certainty….” The man named on Almina’s birth certificate as her father, Fred Wombwell (who might well have been Almina’s father), was a rakish figure, but the book sticks the knife in much further than justified – just to make sure Fred’s memory is totally expunged - he’s branded as a drunkard and a thief. Another agonising stream throughout the book are the references to show Almina as the dutiful wife, and even more absurd, of her constantly nursing the 5th Earl and that it was this wife driven dedication that led to her taking up nursing as a vocation. That never happened. Almina rose to take up nursing to do something useful (it was her sole decision, after years of frustration as a show-wife) and to get out of the reaches of Carnarvon's hysteria and fretting about not being able to go to Egypt because of the Great War. The Earl had his male helpers, his valet, and physician. The book is a real missed chance at using sources inside Highclere.

About the author (2011)

Lady Fiona Carnarvon married the current Earl of Carnarvon in 1999, and they took over Highclere eight years ago.

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