Wednesday, February 6, 2013

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

I can be counted among the millions of viewers who are captivated by the lives and fashions of those who live at the fictional Downton Abbey.  Even more amazing is that the castle is real and that the lives of the actual family who lived there in the early twentieth century is even more amazing than the fictional Crawleys.
The current Countess of Carnarvon has searched Highclere Castle photos and documents as well as British historical archives to reconstruct life at the Castle from 1895 to 1927.  As you read about Lady Almina, her husband, the children, and the staff, you will also be exposed to the changing British world.

I must admit that the author's writing style was heavily fact laden and a tad cumbersome for me, but I persevered because I was learning so much history.  I am just going to highlight four parts of the book for this review.  First, Lady Almina's place in society really fascinated me.  She was the illegitimate daughter of a wealthy banker and her mother Marie, who was married when Almina was born.  Although all of society knew of the relationship between Alfred de Rothschild and Marie, and although Alfred himself was often the companion of England's Prince Edward, no one acknowledged Almina's true parentage.  Alfred lavished his daughter with wealth throughout her life, but never publicly caller her his daughter.  Instead he was known as her godfather.  It was Almina's wealth that attracted the 5th Earl of Carnarvon and his family when it was time for him to marry. That Almina was beautiful and felt a true attraction to the Earl was a bonus.

Second point of interest to me was a more detailed description of the vast workings of the estate.  From the servant quarters to the person responsible for raising the game for the annual shoots to those who cut the lumber for all the building projects, the estate needed to run smoothly. And it was the earl's responsibility that  everyone be provided for.  Readers will get a much clearer picture of that everyday life from the book, than from the television show. Plus, you'll be amazed that the opulence within the manor was even greater than what we see on the television show.  My friends and I have taken a quiz on the PBS website which selects which Crawley family member or staff person you would be based on your answers.  Although I ended up being a member of the Crawley family when I took the quiz, in reality, I think would have probably been scrubbing dishes or floors!

Fans of the show will remember when Downton Abbey served as a hospital and convalescent center during World War I.  That part of the show is directly taken from what happened at Highclere Castle during the war.  Lady Almina long felt a calling to nurse and she began to prepare the Castle for that task when rumors of war began.  Throughout the war, she was instrumental in getting soldiers the best holistic medical care possible.  She used her own wealth to care for the soldiers and later even supported a second hospital in London.  Most of us have studied WWI, probably numerous times in our lives, but I can say the details of this book certainly opened my eyes to the brutality of this war and the hardships the British citizens faced.

Last is the 5th Earl of Carnarvon himself.  Before beginning this book, I did not know he was part of the team who discovered Tutankhamen's tomb.  Unfortunately, he died shortly after its discovery and never saw the true extent of what had been uncovered.

If you're a history buff or if you're among the Downton Abbey fans, you might want to give this a try.  Don't expect a quick read, though!

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