You don’t have to be a fan of Downton Abbey to enjoy Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey: The Lost Legacy of Highclere Castle. If you enjoy British manor houses and history, especially the Edwardian era, you’ll like the book whether you’ve seen the series or not. But if you are a Downton Abbey aficionado, you’ll probably enjoy some of the behind-the-scenes information about the setting for the series.
The fictional Downton Abbey is set in a real castle called Highclere, home to the current eighth Earl of Carnarvon and his wife, the author of this book, the Countess of Carnarvon.
An able historian, the Countess draws from diaries, letters, and other information to tell of one of her predecessors, Lady Almina, who married the fifth Earl of Carnavon in 1895.
Almina was the illegitimate daughter of Alfred de Rothschild, a wealthy banker. Though she had been presented at court, “she had not been invited to the highly exclusive, carefully policed social occasions that followed. Almina’s paternity was the subject of a great deal of rumour, and no amount of fine clothes or immaculate manners could gain her access to the salons of the grand ladies who quietly ruled Society. So Almina had not attended all the crucial balls of her debut season, occasions that were designed to allow a young lady to attract the attentions of an eligible gentleman” (p. 4). But somehow she drew the attention of George Edward Stanhope Molyneux Herbert. Apparently her beauty and large dowry overcame the circumstances of her birth. But from all accounts, Almina and George were fortunate to have a genuine marriage where they truly loved each other.
One of Almina’s main functions was to plan and host dinners and gatherings, even for the Prince of Wales, her husband’s friend. She was a master of organization and a charming hostess.
Unlike many women, she traveled with her husband, a man of many and varying interests.
But life changed during WWI. Almina had found a knack for nursing during one of her husband’s illnesses. During the war, she converted part of the castle into a hospital. She wanted the soldiers to feel like guests at a country estate. She knew they needed respite for the mind and soul as well as the body. But she wasn’t just a distant financier: she donned a nurse’s uniform, made rounds with the doctor every morning, and helped in various ways, even bathing gangrenous feet.
After the war, when travel could resume again, Almina and George traveled to Egypt. George had been to Egypt many times, because of his love for travel and the area, but also for his heath. The damp winters of England were unhealthy for him, so he often spent winters in Egypt. He had financed several excavations over the years without finding much for his efforts. He was going to give up, but then his partner in the work, Howard Carter, wanted to go one more time. George agreed, and this time, to their amazement, they found the tomb of Tutankhamun (not a spoiler as this is mentioned early in the book).
Between these major events, the book tells various details about George and Almina’s family, upstairs vs. downstairs life, the progression of the war and its aftermath, details around the Earl’s discovery of King Tut’s tomb, and Almina’s long-term legacy.
Almina grasped early on “that she was only one part of a machine that would long survive her. Part of her initial task on arrival was to understand the history and community that she was becoming a part of” (p. 15). “Everyone at Highclere, whether they worked above or below stairs, on the farm or in the kitchen, had a role to fulfil, and Almina was no different,” (p. 11).
In shows and films about this era, we often see lords of the manor not doing much besides hosting lavish dinner parties and going hunting. But, in fact, they had a lot of responsibility. Before the war, the Earl had an idea where things were going, and took a large sum of money out of the bank. “Considering that he was morally responsible for the welfare of the entire household, as well as the tenants, he refused the offer [of selling some of his land to the government] and set about adding to his flocks and herds. He also bought one and a half tons of cheese and an immense amount of tea. . . Once he had deposited the gold in his bank in Newbury, he was in a position to provide 243 men women and children with all essentials for at least three months” (pp. 125-126).
The current countess adds in the epilogue that even now, “The challenge for Highclere is to ensure that the Castle and its estate businesses remain strong enough to preserve their rich heritage. It is the same need to balance business and conservation that confronted Almina” (p. 292). “It was the economic fallout of the Second World War, combined with new tax structures, that made it impossible to maintain the opulence of previous generations at Highclere Castle,” (p. 301). When Almina’s son became the sixth earl, he had a reduced staff. WWII took a further toll on the whole country in many ways. The current earl and countess live at the castle part of the time and in a cottage at other times. They offer the house for various gatherings and other purposes (like settings for films) not only as a means of upkeep, but to preserve the house’s legacy.
The countess says in the prologue this book “is not a history, although it is set against the exuberance of the Edwardian period, the sombre gravity of the Great War and the early years of recovery after the conflict. It is neither a biography nor a work of fiction, but places characters in historical settings, as identified from letters, diaries, visitor books and household accounts written at the time.”
It took me a little while to get into this book. The first part was largely informational. But by the time the book got to the war and the castle becoming a hospital, my attention was more engaged. Overall, I really enjoyed it.
I got the Kindle version of this book a while back during a sale, but got the audiobook recently during another sale. Wanda McCaddon is a wonderful narrator for the book: I had previously heard her narration of several other classics.
There is a sequel to this book which I don’t have yet but would like to read some day: Lady Catherine, the Earl, and the Real Downton Abbey. Lady Catherine was Almina’s daughter-in-law, an American who was not an heiress and wasn’t raised in anything like the society she married into. Her husband inherited the estate at a fairly young age, so they were both thrust into big responsibilities sooner than expected. Then they had to manage during WWII and the subsequent changes to the country and their lives.
If you’re interested in the castle, the countess has an Instagram account for it here: https://www.instagram.com/highclere_castle/. She shares some of the hidden nooks and crannies as well as the gatherings they currently host and other interesting details.
This book could fit in the Celebrity category of the the Nonfiction Reader Challenge. George and Almina were celebrities in their day, Downton Abbey has brought a new celebrity to the castle, and the current The Earl and Countess are celebrities now.