Saturday, June 30, 2012

Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey by Fiona, Countess of Carnarvon

Despite having watched (and enjoyed) the first season of Downton Abbey, when I saw a book about "the real Downton Abbey," I wasn't even remotely tempted to pick it up.

What changed my mind? I was really ambitious with signing up for reading challenges this year and my reading and blogging were derailed for most of winter and spring. My mother was in and out of the hospital for the better part of three months (she's fine), then I was sick (still tired, but in the process of bouncing back) and I found myself nearly halfway through the year with only three book reviews (one posted, two waiting to be posted) under my belt and way behind on my reading challenges. (Seriously, look at my challenge progress and laugh. You're more than welcome.) Anyway, so when I saw that Impressions in Ink had done a review of the the book for the War Through the Generations reading challenge, I grabbed a copy from the library immediately...and promptly ignored it until a couple of days before the book was due.

I've finally finished it and I can't believe it took me so long to finally read it. Since the book is written about Almina, Countess of Carnarvon and her home, Highclere Castle (better known as television's Downton Abbey) by Fiona, the current Countess of Carnarvon, I assumed it would be a fluff piece attempting to cash in on the popularity of Downton Abbey.

Wrong. It was extremely well-written and well-researched. There are three distinct parts to the book. In the first part, pre-World War I, focuses on Almina's background as the illegitimate daughter of the extremely wealthy and influential Alfred de Rothschild; her marriage to the Fifth Earl of Carnarvon; and her initial life as an extremely indulged and well-connected member of the nobility. The second part focuses on the events of World War I, including how it affected Highclere Castle and the activities of the family during World War I, including Almina's efforts to establish a hospital at Highclere. Finally, the last part of the book covers life after the war up to the death of the Almina's husband.

In the early part of the book, I was impressed. Almina and her family lived fascinating lives and the current Countess of Carnarvon did a wonderful job of making use of the family records available to her and adding insights about their activities. It was particularly interesting to see how much and how little things had changed at Highclere Castle. However, it was the second and third parts that truly impressed me. Based on the title, I had expected the book to focus only on Highclere Castle and the hospital that Almina ran during World War I. That alone would have been fascinating, since she didn't stop at just establishing a hospital (something many other society ladies were doing during World War I). She tried to establish the best hospital, both by attracting the best staff and purchasing the best equipment and by, as the author put it, treating the soldiers at Highclere Hospital as house guests in addition to patients. The author also covers the actual events of World War I, using both the experiences of the soldiers turned Highclere patients (her description of David Campbell's experiences at Gallipoli was particularly harrowing) and the experiences of the Carnarvon family (Aubrey Herbert, her husband's younger half-brother, played an important diplomatic role). This part is clearly well-researched and the descriptions are extremely powerful.

The final part of the book focuses mainly on her husband's role in the discovery of King Tut's tomb with Howard Carter (he had backed Carter financially for about fifteen years). Unfortunately, the press frenzy strained not only Carnarvon and Carter, but also their friendship. It also led to Carnarvon's death at 56 shortly before the discovery of the sarcophagus of Tutankhamun.

The writing style is wonderful. Even in the earlier, happier days, there's quite a bit of foreshadowing about the future. I've noticed that this ominous feeling is frequently there when I'm reading historical accounts leading up to particularly tragic events, but it was definitely well-done in this story. It helped to illustrate exactly how World War I led to a lost generation, mainly by mentioning the fates of Highclere men and acquaintances of the Carnarvon family who had joined the war effort. This is definitely not a fluff book and I would absolutely recommend it to anyone interested in private Egyptian archeology, World War I, or life of English nobility during the first part of the twentieth century.

This book counts word the Support Your Local Library, War Through the Generations, and Non-Fiction, Non-Memoir challenges.


  1. Your review will be featured on War Through the Generations on Aug. 8. Thanks for participating in the challenge!

  2. Hello! I'm Annette from Impressions In Ink. I'm so glad you enjoyed this book, as I did too. Can't wait for Season 3 of Downton Abbey!
    I'm a new follower to your blog!