Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey

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.

Last Christmas in Paris

Last Christmas in Paris: A Novel of World War I by Hazel Gaynor and Heather Webb opens with the beginning of WWI. Two friends from childhood, Will Elliott and Thomas Harding, head out for France to fight, enthusiastically expecting the war to be over by Christmas. Then they plan to meet Will’s sister, Evie, and her friend, Alice, in Paris for Christmas to celebrate.

But of course the war drags on much longer than the few months til Christmas.

Evie writes Will and Thomas with all the support and hope she can send. Will is not much of a writer, so Evie gets most of her news about him from Tom.

Over time, enthusiasm and naiveté wanes and the realities of war weigh them all down. Tom gets more discouraged by what he has seen and has to do.

Tom also faces pressure from his father’s illness and business troubles. His father owns and operates the London Daily Times and always planned for Tom to follow in his footsteps. Tom’s interests fall more into a literary and scholarly vein, and he has no interest in the newspaper, which causes tension with his father. But when his father falls ill, Tom is consulted. He can’t do much from France, so he asks his cousin, John, to step in. There has been some longstanding feud between Tom’s and John’s families, but Tom never knew what it was all about, and he has to hope John will keep the paper’s best interests in mind.

Evie, meanwhile, chafes at home. She wants to do something to help, but her mother insists that for girls in her class, the only acceptable activity is aiding her mother with her charities and looking for a suitable husband. But Evie branches out from her protective gilded cage. Though she puts herself at risk, she also grows through her efforts.

The book opens with an aged and ill Thomas planning to go to Paris for Christmas in 1968 to read one last letter from Evie. Most of the book is made up of letters, mostly between Tom and Evie, but also with Will, Alice, their parents, and Tom’s contacts at his father’s business. At different places throughout the novel, the scene switches back to Tom and his current situation and reflections over his life.

This book was not in my Christmas reading plans, not even on my radar until Becky mentioned it. It sounded interesting, and I needed a new audiobook, so I got it. Epistolary novels are not my favorite style of writing, but I have enjoyed some.

I am so glad I listened to this book. I enjoy historical fiction, and not as many books are written about the first world war. I like how this one shared details of everyday life in England as well as on the front.

But mostly I enjoyed the growth of Evie and Tom’s characters and their relationship with each other. From lighthearted banter to lifting each other up from the deepest discouragement, from heartbreak to hope, from misunderstanding to shared poetry, they get to know one another better than they ever had before but almost miss each other in the end.

Though there is some mention of God and prayer, this is a secular book. It has maybe three bad words, but is remarkably clean.

The audiobook is excellently done, with different narrators for the different characters.

This is a beautiful book, and I am so glad I listened to it.

Book Review: A Portrait of Loyalty

A Portrait of Loyalty is the third in Roseanna M. White’s Codebreakers series which takes place during WWI.

Lily Blackwell inherited her mother’s artistic eye, but her medium is photography rather than paint. Skilled in retouching as well as taking pictures, Lily’s father recruits her into the government’s propaganda department. But they keep her involvement a secret from Lily’s mother, who doesn’t approve of art being used that way.

Zivon Marin’s outspokenness against Lenin led to his fiance’s murder and his having to flee Russia. He had been second in command in Russia’s cryptography department and now offers his services to England. Though England accepts his offer, not everyone in the department is sure they can trust him—especially when compromising pictures begin mysteriously showing up.

When Zivon and Lily meet, neither can be completely forthcoming. So how can they ever truly know and trust each other?

And as WWI seems to be winding to a close, another threat looms: the Spanish flu, known at first as the three-day fever.

A few favorite quotes:

The world may still look dark, but if photography had taught her anything, it was that there was always more light to be found. Sometimes you just needed to change your lens. And sometimes you need a flash. Neither ever changed what was really there… but it showed it in a new way.

We must be still – not our hands and feet, but our minds. And know that He is God. That He has not changed. That the same Lord who loved us when all is well loves us still when all is lost. His promises are as true today as they were yesterday. He has been enough to see people through the worst since the dawn of time. We must trust that His love is enough to see us through now.

She had a feeling he was like a matryoshka doll too–a placid exterior that hid layers of secrets and mysteries. And she couldn’t help but wonder what lay beneath this carefully crafted shell.

Once again, Roseanna has woven together an intriguing story with a lot of depth and layers. The only problem with listening to the audiobook raher than reading is that the audiobook doesn’t include the author’s end notes explaining where she got her inspiration and what parts of the story were based on true happenings.

Although I think any of the books in the series could be read alone, I really enjoyed reading/listening to them straight through. The Codebreakers series continues the timeline and some of the characters of the Shadows Over England series.

Shadows Over England:

Book 1: A Name Unknown
Book 2: A Song Unheard
Book 3: An Hour Unspent

Codebreakers series:

Book 1: The Number of Love
Book 2: On the Wings of Devotion
Book 3: A Portrait of Loyalty

(Sharing with Carole’s Books You Loved, Booknificent Thursday)

Book Review: On the Wings of Devotion

In Roseanna M. White’s novel, On Wings of Devotion, Phillip Camden’s nickname is “Black Heart.” He earned it when his squadron went down in flames and he was thought to be the cause due to a loud argument and threat to one of his men. A friend pulled some strings to get Phillip out of prison and into Room 40, where the codebreakers worked during WWI. But his surliness and bitterness keep everyone at bay.

Arabelle Denler is a nurse and an heiress. She’s warm and kind, but not considered attractive. Since her father had been absent most of her childhood, all she ever wanted was a family. When a lifelong friend suggested a marriage of convenience so her money could help preserve his family home, she readily agreed. But then her fiance fell in love with someone else.

Phillip puts himself forth as Arabelle’s protector from the stream of men seeking her hand—and her money—now that she’s free. As they come to know each other, Arabelle sees beyond the surface of Phillip’s brusque exterior. He sees the goodness and kindness of her heart.

But an old acquaintance seeks Phillip out. He knows she’s up to no good. But he doesn’t realize that she’s setting him up as part of a larger target.

This book is the second of the Codebreaker series, which is a continuation of the Shadows over England series. I enjoyed seeing a few characters from the previous books pop up. But I enjoyed Phillip’s and Arabelle’s stories even more. All the threads of the story—the characters, the spiritual and mental journeys, the intrigue—kept me listening to the audiobook every chance I got, especially the last fourth or so of the book.

A couple of quotes:

This war was destroying her entire generation. Those it hadn’t wiped out entirely it was trying to take apart piece by piece. And what could she do?

We can be sure it will be painful. Cutting out what stands between us and God always is. But we can also trust that in the giving, we’ll gain something far more precious.

The audiobook was wonderfully read by Susan Lyons. The only negative about the audiobook is that it doesn’t include the author’s notes at the end, where she tells how she came to write the story, what historical details she drew on, etc.

Each book I read from Roseanna is my favorite. Until I read the next.

(Sharing with Booknificent Thursday, Carole’s Books You Loved)

Book Review: The Number of Love

Margot De Wilde thinks in numbers. Numerals line up differently in her head when all is well or something is off. Her father developed a system of cryptography before WWI with young Margot as his main pupil. After his death, Margot and her mother were rescued from Belgium (in A Song Unheard) to be with her brother, famous violinist Lucas De Wilde, in London. Though a teenager, Margot is recruited to work in the admiralty’s secret Room 40 deciphering Germany’s coded messages.

Margot had one good friend back in Belgium, but she’s not interested in the silly things most girls are. She’s content to be alone, but when she notices Dot, another young woman at the admiralty seemingly on the outskirts of society, they strike up a satisfying friendship.

Dot thinks her brother, Drake, is in the Navy. Their grandfather in Spain thinks Drake is a student. Neither suspects Drake actually works undercover.

Drake finds Margot fascinating and loves her sarcastic sense of humor. But Margot has no time for or interest in romance.

Then Margot suffers a tragic loss that turns her well-ordered world upside-down. Not only do the numbers in her mind stop, but God seems silent.

And Drake returns from Spain wounded with an enemy who may pursue him all the way to London.

The Number of Love is the first in Roseanna M. White’s Codebreakers series, which follows the Shadows Over England series. A few of the characters carry over. This novel is every bit as captivating as the first three. It may be my favorite of Roseanna’s so far.

A couple of quotes from the book:

Faith isn’t just feeling. We have to know He’s still there, unchanged, even when we can’t feel Him. When the grief’s too loud to let us hear His voice.

There were never any guarantees. Even being sure God wanted him to do this didn’t mean he’d come home safely. Sometimes God’s will meant bullets searing flesh. Death coming too soon. Sometimes God’s will was to let man taste the consequences of his folly and his hatred and his supposed self-sufficiency. Sometimes God let people die. Let His children break. And then pieced them back together into something new. Something that He could use for His glory instead of theirs

I enjoyed the suspense provided by the intrigue and mystery concerning Drake’s pursuer and the historical detail. At the end of the book, Roseanna differentiates between the actual historical facts she used and the details she made up.There was an actual Room 40 of codebreakers during WWI that few knew about.

I love that Margot is an imperfect heroine. Even though she’s smart, she’s also young and a bit immature. And she can come across as a little arrogant sometimes. But her experiences help mature and humble her and teach her to rely not on her abilities or systems, but on God.

I’m so glad Roseanna continued this series. I look forward to the next book!

(See also: Why Read Christian Fiction)

(Sharing with Booknificent Thursday, Carole’s Books You Loved)

Book Review: An Hour Unspent

Barclay Pearce is the head of a makeshift family of orphans who found each other on the streets and put themselves together as a family. The only way the older kids knew to care for the younger was to become pickpockets. They became quite good at what they did, to the point that V., an enigmatic figure with some kind of ties to the British government during WWI, recruited some of them for some behind-the-scenes, off-record reconnaissance and information-gathering.

Now Barclay and his two oldest “sisters” have become Christians and turned the family from thieving. For now, V provides them with plenty of well-paid work. What they’ll do after the war, they don’t know—but they’ll trust God to lead.

Meanwhile, Barclay, the newest to become a believer, tries to learn how to walk by faith, find God’s guidance, and apply Christian principles to the work V asks of him.

His latest job is to get to know clock-maker Cecil Manning. Dr. Manning is something of a tinkerer, creating toys and other inventions. Rumor has it that he’s working on a synchronized gear that could help pilots in the war. If he is, the admiralty wants information: how close he is to completion, does he need anything to aid his efforts, would he be willing for the government to use the gear.

Evelina Manning Is the clock-maker’s only daughter. She’s close to her father and fondly tolerant of his eccentric habits. She’s less tolerant of her mother’s controlling ways. Evelina works with the suffragette movement, much to her mother’s dismay. Her childhood bout with polio left her with a leg that works most of the time.

But one time when her leg betrayed her, this Barclay fellow stepped in to help, unasked and unneeded. That set them off on the wrong foot. Finding out more about Barclay’s past and his unconventional but loving family doesn’t raise him in her eyes. But there’s something about him that piques her interest.

As the first zeppelins attack London and the Germans also learn of Manning’s gear, Barclay and Evelina will have to work together to escape the danger coming for them.

An Hour Unspent is the third and last in Roseanna M. White’s Shadows Over England series. As with the first two (A Name Unknown and A Song Unheard), I loved the story, the characters, and the realistic faith element. Thankfully, some of the characters from this series carry over into the next, The Codebreakers. I also love the covers of all three books. The fact that they were different from what I have seen before first drew me to them.

(Sharing with Carole’s Books You Loved, Booknificent Thursday)