History, Nonfiction

Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey: the Lost Legacy of Highclere Castle, by the Countess of Carnarvon

Screen Shot 2013-10-28 at 7.31.37 PMBefore there was Downton Abbey, there was Highclere Castle, the house used in the series, and the real life home of the Herbert family.  The current owner, George Herbert, is the 8th Earl of Carnarvon.  He is the latest in an illustrious family who, through determination, business sense, and fortuitous marriages has managed to keep Highclere Castle a self-sustaining estate when so many other houses of its kind have fallen into ruin.

The current earl’s wife Fiona, Countess of Carnarvon, feels a great duty to uphold the history of the castle and the family, especially now when Downton Abbey fans are clamoring for more information about the original owners.

Like Jacquelyn Bouvier, who brought class and style to Kennedy’s Camelot, Almina Wombwell did the same when she arrived at Highclere Castle as a 19 year old bride in 1895.

The illegitimate daughter of the fabulously wealthy Alfred de Rothschild, Almina was never fully embraced by society until she married the 5th Earl of Carnarvon.  She came with an enormous dowry, a generous stipend for redecorating, and her indulgent father funded the hospital she established at the castle during World War I.

There is no doubt that the current Lady Carnarvon has great respect for Almina and her legacy, much of which is still evident at the castle.  Her writing is uneven, but interesting, especially when she focuses on personal stories of the family, staff, and memorable soldiers who enjoyed the high-quality care provided there during the war.

As the reader I found myself either deeply engrossed or skimming.  I read intensely the parts about Almina and the earl’s courtship, personal stories from her childhood and her relationship with her father, the planning of her first important party for the Prince of Wales, and the many trips to Egypt which eventually led to the discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb.

I skimmed over a lot of the less personal chapters about the happenings during the war.  Certainly the war affected Europe, and therefore, the inhabitants of Highclere, greatly.  But there were several times when the author seemed to get caught up in the technical aspects, almost like she was regurgitating information from another book.  It was lengthy and out of place.

It is fascinating to read about families such as the Carnarvons who have great inherited wealth, an estate, a title, and the responsibility to uphold these things for future generations.  As stewards of these privileges, that is their job.  But they also enjoy perks that the common man will never know, like rubbing elbows with royalty, being “gentleman politicians” but with no real governmental power, and spending money without even knowing how much they have in order to maintain the expected lifestyle.

Much of that money went towards the Egypt excavations.  And this is the first time I have read about the way the monumental discovery of Tut’s tomb changed the family’s life, mostly because of the invasion of the press.

Would I recommend the book?  Yes.  About half of it is very, very interesting.  Battle enthusiasts might find the other half interesting too.

7.5 out of 10 Stars

*** Learning about King Tut’s tomb has always been of special interest to me.  As a young kindergartener I was able to view actual artifacts when they came to Los Angeles on a special tour.  I never forgot that.  About 5 years ago, many of the most famous artifacts made their way again to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and I had the opportunity to see them as an adult.  It is a singular experience to see the actual objects that were buried with Tut over 3000 years ago.  They have an aura of mystery and incredible beauty.

If this is a subject that interests you, I highly, highly recommend going to the PBS.org site or the PBS channel on your Roku player and watching “Ultimate Tut,” an episode from the series Secrets of the Dead.  Seeing this episode in tandem with finishing this book made everything come to life from that period of the Carnarvons’ lives.  I’m including a link HERE.

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