Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey: The Lost Legacy of Highclere Castle by Countess Of Carnarvon (2011-09-29)

by Countess Of Carnarvon;

Hardcover, 1800

Status

Available

Call number

DA570 .C37

Publication

Hodder & Stoughton; Second Impression edition (2011-09-29) (1800)

Description

Tells the story behind Highclere Castle, the real-life inspiration and setting for Julian Fellowes's Emmy Award-winning PBS show, and the life of one of its most famous inhabitants, Lady Almina, the 5th Countess of Carnarvon.

User reviews

LibraryThing member cameling
I thought this would be fluff, but it turned out to be the very opposite. Through photos and excerpts from family archives, the focus is primarily on Lady Almina, the Countess of Carnarvon after her marriage to the 5th Earl of Carnarvon. Highclere Castle may be the setting for the popular TV series, Downton Abbey, and there are some similarities in events that took place in both the fictional family seat of the Crawleys and the Carnarvons, but this generation of the Carnarvons made contributions to society that have endured to present time.

Almina Wombwell, alleged illegitimate daughter of Alfred de Rothschild, married Lord Carnarvon, into the Herbert family and became the next mistress of Highclere Castle.

While we're treated to an insight into the glittering lifestyle of the wealthy and titled during the late 1800s, there was eventually more to this family than frivolous self-indulgence. It is a snapshot of the times when Queen Victoria reigned over the great British Empire. There are references to the families who live in the Castle to maintain the Castle and serve the family, who work the grounds and the village around the castle, but the focus is solely on Lady Almina and Lord Carnarvon,and later, their two children, Lord Porchester (always known as Porchy) and Eve.

The most interesting portions of the book, in my opinion, is the coverage of England when the Great War breaks. Men from Highclere's staff enlist or are called up, including Lady Almina's son, Porchy. Lord Carnarvon as a result of poor health, is spared, but his step-brother, Aubrey, despite poor eyesight, is determined to do his bit for his country. As the war progresses and more soldiers are injured or die on the front line, Lady Almina's finds her calling. Believing that soldiers recuperate better if they're in calm and luxurious surroundings, she proceeds to convert Highclere into a recuperative hospital, with funds from Alfred de Rothschild, hiring dedicated nurses and doctors. Her unflagging energy and determined concern for the soldiers earn her enormous respect, love and gratitude from their families, to whom she wrote missives, letting them know how their husbands, sons or brothers are doing, and at times, even inviting them to come for a visit.

Lord Carnarvon's passion, on the other hand, is Egypt, and archeology. He is introduced to and teams up with Howard Carter. Despite poor health, he continued to fund and spend the cold winter months in Egypt, hoping to discover important tombs and to increase his collection of Egyptian antiquities. Eventually, of course, he and Carter discover Tutankhamun's tomb and we all know how his life story ends.

Following the death of the 5th Earl, Lady Almina steps down as the Countess of Carnarvon and the reigns are turned over to her son, now the 6th Earl of Carnarvon, his wife and their son, and there the book ends.

Written simply and with an engaging style, I found myself completely captivated.
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LibraryThing member AlminaCarnarvon
We should know our betters : know that toffs will not be transparent. They will only tell you what they want you to know and to minimise the scandal they will painfully minimise the accuracy. Despite pointing out the howlers in the captions on several photographs, and the historically flawed text in Highclere’s “ Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey” ( after the hardback came out in the UK, last September ) the transformation of this book into it’s new “ First US Edition”, with the inners unchanged, confirms that view.

The book does have an attractive new cover but it’s still the content that counts.

It’s all another instance of Herbert history repeating itself. There is already a less than honourable pile up of Carnarvon-family scribes who put their heavy-handed gloss on the accuracy regarding past members of the clan. Elsie, the second 4th Countess of Carnarvon, rigorously controlled and censored the posthumous biography of Henry, the 4th Earl of Carnarvon, a notable Victorian politician and Cabinet Minister. Lady Winifred Burghclere, the sister of George, 5th Earl of Carnarvon of Tutankhamun fame ( Almina’s husband ) did exactly the same, stopping the leak of any embarrassing fall out about “Lordy!” ( the name the Egyptian natives gave Lord Carnarvon in the Valley of the Kings ). In 1923, Lady Winfred crafted an elegant and impeccably worded posthumous sketch of her adored brother, George, but as seen through her very rose tinted glasses, and it made no mention, of faults, or George’s darker proclivities. Almina was demolished by Winifred’s blast of the trumpet in a single, dull, sentence. Then there was the womanising 6th Earl’s ghosted memoirs that stopped well short of fact about his catalogue of carnal cavorting. And, unsurprisingly, the ghost writers have done it yet again with this book, portraying Almina as a saint. This lady was no saint!

But there’s a lot at stake in only offering up a sanitised edition of Almina’s life with the rake-in being synonymous with the public popularity of Highclere Castles’ expansive ( and expensive ) use as the backdrop to a television programme called “Downton Abbey”.

People actually believe in, and follow this TV series as mesmerised as grazing sheep watching car headlamps flicking in the winter darkness of night. But the same extremes between fiction and reality portrayed in “Lady Almina…....” are at best an attempt to confuse the masses to make them actually believe the fiction, much as Orson Wells first deceived half of America into leaving their homes as they thought the men from Mars were about to land.

What good features there are in the book – and there are some genuinely interesting and worthy parts – albeit only carefully selected examples from Highclere’s Secrets Archives- are lost in the colossal wave of hypocrisy by the painfully irritating plotters. Almina’s true-life experiences are often scuttled, just as assassin or assassins scuttled an earlier biography of her in the 1990s– the reason being that on that occasion evidence was found that Almina had “strayed”, the 6th Earl’s paternity was in very great doubt. The gene pool of Porchey Carnarvon’s father is mentioned in the narrative but in the wrong places, to bring him out with any meaningful recognition. But you will find this confronted in another biography of Almina, Countess of Carnarvon in addition to the rest of her secrets.

Besides the paternity issue, which remains an open wound, Almina’s own paternity is a matter of some dispute. Porchey, the womanising 6th Earl of Carnarvon, who absolutely hated his mother, was first to claim, publically, that the millionaire banker, Baron ( he was never a “Sir”) Alfred de Rothschild was Almina’s biological father. This, despite a birth certificate that states her dad was “ Frederick C Wombwell”, a gentleman, although also a cad. Wombwell believed he was Almina’s father, but he is ridiculed in Highclere’s text. They choose also to ignore Almina’s brother, who was a visitor at Highclere and to whom the Countess raised a fine memorial when he died.

Going back to Almina being a Rothschild bastard, this nonsence has been maintained with constancy and the Wombwells discredited. But there is NO proof in favour of the Rothschild in this book, indeed they are as frigid as the fiction of Downton Abbey on the central point of their treatise.

It seems a case of employing the technique of Mr Goebbels that if one utters a big enough untruth and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. In this case when the golden opportunity presented itself, to reveal the full facts about Alfred and cite the evidence for these claims of Almina being a Rothschild, the book can only declare limply “. the question of Almina’s paternity can’t be conclusively determined with any certainty….”

The strengths of “ Lady Almina…..” include the descriptions of Highclere ramparts at war. Almina found her forte as a nurse and spent over thirty years working steadfastly (and often waywardly) in private nursing care, mainly pampering to the Royals, the rich and the famous. But none of Almina’s story in the later period of her life is included in the book.

Almina transferred her Castle for the Great War and later moved her wartime nursing home activities to London’s Mayfair. But all this storyline ( which is well enough told ) is small glory, in what is otherwise a cowardly approach, messing with a woman’s life and only stating her pleasantries. Almina’s real life, the character and make up of the woman, her struggle for love, and for own carnal pleasures, as well as her motives in wanting to do something worthwhile don’t get mentioned. Perhaps they were afraid of scaring the horses at Highclere stud, the beasts were once owned by Almina, who was made bankrupt by 1951, and lived with a man twenty years her junior, in a apple orchard in Somerset, completely unknown to Highclere’s hounds.

The book makes a good meal out of the rituals of Society entertaining and Almina’s brave challenge to be the grandest hostess of the hour. The stay at Highclere Castle by the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII) in 1895 is a good chunk, but this was published in a previous book by the same stable, so it’s double dipping.

Another weakness of the book is in its abrupt ending. Almina’s story is cut-off suddenly in 1923, just after the 5th Earl’s famous mosquito bite and then cruel demise. That said, the last page refers to her second marriage, to an ex- army Colonel (whilst saying nothing of the blackguard plunging her into a scandalous Court case of DENNISTOUN v DENNISTOUN in 1925, which cost her $100,000 worth of misery). In summing up Almina’s next four lively decades in a single paragraph – and not a very good one – it leaves the brainwashed reader with only that other biography to best reflect the Countess’s full life and loves, her glories and her descent into bankruptcy, but ultimately to her greater story, which in being told without warts or blemishes leaves this important, unstoppable, eccentric woman, who really didn’t give a damn, a much lesser figure than she really was. She deserves a much better memorial than a nice new book cover.
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LibraryThing member mt256
Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey is an interesting biography about the residents of Highclere Castle aka Downton Abbey. This book follows the life of Lady Almina, an extraordinary woman who lived a very full life. Lady Almina had a scandalous parentage that people in the Edwardian period frowned upon but her large dowry made them overlook it. She caught the eye of Earl of Carnarvon and married young. She made Highclere her home and entertained everyone from royalty to famous authors. During World War I she opened the doors to Highclere and made this luxurious house into a hospital. Lady Almina found her calling in nursing. She spent countless hours tending to the wounded, writing to their families and offering words of comfort to the soldiers.
The Earl of Carnarvon is most famous for the discovery of King Tutankhamun's tomb along with Howard Carter. Although the discovery came late in his life, the Earl had a lifelong appreciation for history. Lady Almina supported him in his ventures and often accompanied him on various trips to Egypt.
There are many similarities to the show Downton Abbey and the life at Highclere Castle. The contents of this book are taken from journals, letters, and visitor accounts. The Countess of Carnarvon has included many photographs that help put names to faces. Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey is a great biography. It's really enjoyable to read. Fans of Downton Abbey will enjoy getting the scoop on the factual events behind the show. Fans of history will enjoy getting a inside look of what it was to live in a fine house during the Edwardian era.
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LibraryThing member dpappas
This is an interesting glimpse into life at Highclere Castle, the inspiration for the television show Downton Abbey, in the late 19th century and early 20th century. It mostly follows the life of the 5th Countess of Carnarvon, Almina.

This book absolutely fascinated me. I liked reading about Almina's journey as Countess of Carnarvon. Basically I was fascinated with the whole family. From reading this book you can see just the great woman that Almina was. During WWI she converted Highclere Castle into a hospital to help wounded soldiers.

At times I was a little confused because of how many people are mentioned in this book. Sometimes I'd have to flip back to see who someone was. It would have been nice if there had been an index in the beginning of all the names of the people mentioned and who they were.

Overall this book is an interesting look into the life of Almina and it made me what to learn even more about her. I would recommend this book to friends and family, and also to fans of the show Downton Abbey.

*I received this book from a Goodreads giveaway, which in no way affects the content of my review.*
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LibraryThing member delphimo
This is an interesting book about Highclere Castle from the 1890's to the 1930's, and the family presiding in this English landmark. The family living in this castle is the Carnarvons, and the story centers on Lady Almina, the 5th Countess of Carnarvon. The story begins with Almina Wombwell, the illegitimate daughter of Alfred de Rothschild, preparing to marry the 5th Earl of Carnarvon. The story centers on Almina and the Earl, and briefly tells of the vast number of servants. The lifestyle is lavish with money provided by Alfred de Rothschild. The amazing stories involve Almina's generosity with providing a hospital for wounded soldiers during WWI. Almina supplied nurses and doctors and food and board for these men at her own expense. Almina's husband, Lord Carnarvon, provided the money and time for the excavation and exploration of King Tut's Tomb. The current Lady Carnarvon wrote the book. Many times the endless names of family and friends and events seemed massive. I would have enjoyed a timetable of events and maybe a family genealogy.… (more)
LibraryThing member DebbieLE
If you are looking for Downton Abbey in book form than this is not the book for you. I had a hard time with that at first. I was looking for the same feel of the Downton Abbey television series. I wanted the stories of both those living in the castle and those whose job it is to keep it running smoothly. There is obviously some of that in this book but as it is not a fictional story written for drama, it can not be the same.

It's well written and a good history. There are lots of interesting pieces of information and connections. I found both Lady Almina and her husband, the 5th Count of Carnarvon, very compelling subjects. The Count in particular played a large part in a wonderful, historical find of that time period. This story is not solely about Lady Almina and Highclere castle which I felt actually added something to the book.

However, I think I frequently got side tracked by the many names thrown out there not pertinent to the story. Names that were obviously important names in that time in English history, but since they were often not more than a mention it did as much, if not more, to distract from the book than it did to add to it. If you are interested in this time in English history I am sure you will enjoy this book.
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LibraryThing member briandrewz
This excellent book by the current Countess of Carnarvon reminds of us of life in the Edwardian and World War I eras.

The text is absolutely fascinating. Any fan of Downton Abbey would surely be interested in this book about Almina, Countess of Carnarvon, and her work at Highclere Castle.

This is a great read and I can't give enough compliments to the author.

A job well done!
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LibraryThing member amymahlia
It was interesting to see the correlations between this history and the Downton Abbey series. But more importantly, this book actually provides a good overview of WWI and the horrendous tragedy it inflicted on millions of people and so many countries. The book could use some editing. Perhaps it was written quickly to capitalize on the popularity of the Masterpiece Classic production.… (more)
LibraryThing member etxgardener
I was skeptical about this book when I saw that the author was the current Countess of Carnarvon, but to my happy surprise this book is very well written. Lady Almina was another intrepid young girl who was married for her monetary I. Order two bolster the lagging fortunes of the Carnarvon family. The illigitiment daughter of a upper-middle class French woman and Alfred de Rothschild, Slmina wasn't accepted in aristocratic British circles, but, of course people were more than willing to look the other way when it was learned that he would bring a fabulous dowry to the marriage. And despite its cynical start, the marriage proved to be. A happy one. Almina was a brilliant hostess, produced an heir right away, and poured her money into refurbishing the family estate.

Almina's husband, the 5th Eatl of Carnarvon is, of course, famous for the discovery of King Tut's tomb. But Almina also gained fame for herself during World War I when she started a hospital for wounded officers and not content to be just it's patron, also thre herself into the physical act of nursing.

This book gives a great inside look at a famous family and at its country house that is nor he setting for the BBC miniseries, "Downton Abey.". It's a fun read fora Anglophiles everywhere.
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LibraryThing member arielfl
I picked up this little gem of a book expecting to read about Highclere Castle, the setting of Downton Abbey, and maybe learn a little bit more of the history of the people who lived there.

I was surprised to learn that Highclere castle was the ancestral home of the 5th Lord of Carnarvon who was partner to Howard Carter who discovered King Tutankhamun's tomb in the Valley of the Kings. I knew that after financing the discovery, Lord Carnarvon died shortly the tomb was discovered from a mosquito bite which spawned the idea of a "mummy's curse". Despite a love Egyptology, especially Tut, I didn't really know anything about Lord Carnarvon. It was such a delight to learn more about his fascinating life.

His equally intriguing wife, Lady Almina was a force to be reckoned with in her own right. During WWI she turned Highclere castle into a military hospital as was depicted in Downton Abbey. Almina gave selflessly to her family and country. She took over the daily running of Highclere when she was only 19 years old and besides being known for her incredible nursing skills she was also quite the high society hostess. She lived a long life and succesfully passed the reigns to the next Lord Carnarvon and family.

The current Lady Carnnarvon who was is the author of this book did an excellent job of relating her predecessors history. It was obvious that she holds Lady Almina and her husband in high esteem. Fans of Downton Abbey will not want to miss this book. I for one will be looking for hints of the Egyptian antiquities that are no doubt still housed at Highclere when the new season of Downton starts.
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LibraryThing member tjsjohanna
Not being a viewer of "Downton Abbey", I'm surely at a disadvantage. Still, I found this view of Highclere Castle history to be an interesting one - particularly the World War I years.
LibraryThing member gmcluckie
Very entertaining true story, with a refreshing frankness about the Carnarvon family's foibles as well as their strengths. Fascinating to think real people really lived in this way. One small quibble: I wish the Countess of Carnarvon would have included a summary of Almina's life after the era described in this book.
LibraryThing member TABrowne
I love watching Downton Abbey and was thrilled when a friend gifted me with this book. I loved it. Sometimes it was a little slow but books that are primarily nonfiction tend to be for me. The pictures are fun and it is such a joy to know the backstory to a beloved tv show.
LibraryThing member GTTexas
A really interesting read about English life in Victorian/Edwardian days through shortly after WWI. The current tie to the "Downton Abbey" series and the always interesting story of the discovery of the discovery of "King Tut's tomb" make it doubly interesting.
LibraryThing member satyridae
I didn't expect this to be a riveting book, but it was. I was expecting a puff piece tying the history of Highclere to the Downton Abbey series. I am not the least bit disappointed to have been utterly wrong. The true story (one assumes sanitized at least a little, of course) is many times more interesting than the soap opera television series. The real people who lived at Highclere during the end of the 19th & beginning of the 20th century were larger-than-life and so terribly interesting to read about. Highly recommended for Anglophiles, history buffs, nurses, Egyptophiles and fans of Downtown Abbey.… (more)
LibraryThing member Jammies
The book was interesting, although there were various grammar and spelling usages which threw me out of the narrative. These may just result from a difference between British and American English, so I didn't deduct any mental points. Almina, Countess Carnarvon, was certainly an interesting woman, but I did deduct a point for the marketing strategy of linking her life with a popular television show. The book could have stood on its own merits.… (more)
LibraryThing member mrlzbth
I really wanted something different from this book--coming to it as a fan of "Downton Abbey", I expected more of a look into the daily life of Highclere and the different experiences of the "upstairs" and "downstairs" residents. Instead the book is primarily about World War I, and not even about Highclere's role in World War I...instead of focusing tightly on Lady Almina's experiences running a wartime hospital, the narrative meanders all over the place and includes quite a bit of time spent going over basic history.

The prose style is also extremely choppy and many of the anecdotes' punchlines fall flat because they're so poorly told...Overall I would not recommend this one, particularly for readers primarily looking for a Downton fix.
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LibraryThing member StefanieGeeks
Excellent narration and interesting history. I prefer my non-fiction to read like fiction and while the chapters are each like mini-stories it just didn't hold my attention that way I'd hoped it would until the author got to the King Tut connection. I'd love to hear more about Lord Carnarvon and his hunt for King Tut's tomb with Carter.
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LibraryThing member susiesharp
As a huge fan of Downton Abbey I had to read this book. It wasn’t as interesting as I had hoped until towards the end when we find out that Lord Carnarvon was partners with Howard Carter when he found the tomb of King Tut. The whole story about Egypt was fascinating and how Lord Carnarvon was one of the first to succumb to the “curse” even though the author doesn’t talk about that aspect I’ve read and researched enough about Egyptology that to me that was fascinating. I would read more about this time period in the Carnarvon’s life. It made me do some research and I found photo’s of the two of them together in Egypt and finding the tomb so that was fun!

As for Lady Almina I admit to being very surprised when she married so soon after the lord died as before that she was so devoted to him and she didn’t wait the acceptable mourning period of the time but the author decided to kind of skim over these facts and didn’t really give us a reason for marrying this sickly man so soon after her beloved husband died. And I would have like to know any social repercussions she suffered because she didn’t wait till the mourning period was over. I did enjoy the parts about her turning Highclere into a hospital which because of Downton I could picture well.

Because I am such a huge fan of the TV show there were times when names would come up like Bates, or Crawley , it would throw me a little bit because they weren’t my beloved characters from the show. There was also the time when the Lord got a car and he was speedy around in it and crashed and I thought oh no he’s going to die but he didn’t at that time but all I could think of was Matthew on the TV show!

Wanda McCaddon did a wonderful job at the narration she brought a slight haughtiness that I felt was needed in this setting. I would definitely listen to this narrator again.

I would recommend this to fans of the show because this kind of gives the outline that Julian Fellows may have built Downton on. Just don’t expect the TV show version of things.

3 ½ Stars

I received this from Edelweiss and the publisher Tantor Audio for a fair and honest review.
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LibraryThing member delphica
This was a great, quick read. It's a biography-lite of Lady Almina, the Countess of Carnarvon at Highclere Castle, which is the actual manor house used in Downton Abbey. The main similarity between Highclere Castle and the events of the series is that it was used as a hospital during WWI. This was entirely inspired by Lady Carnarvon herself, who apparently had a great, hands-on, vocation for nursing.

Overall, this seemed fascinating to me, although I think mainly this is most compelling to people who have a strong interest in this era anyway, even beyond being fans of the show. There are plenty of rich details about life at Highclere, with more about life upstairs but you get a sense of how downstairs was operating as well (although for the downstairs part, it helps to come into it with basic knowledge about the set up).

Lady Almira was a force to be reckoned with, she definitely knew what she wanted in life and confidently set out to attain her goals (with tremendous financial backing, which I'm sure would assist us all in being bigger goal-attainers). Her husband, Lord Carnarvon, was the financial backer and amateur Egyptologist who supported Howard Carter and was on the scene for the discovery of Tutankhamun's tomb. The book claims, and I hope this is true because I found it such an intriguing fact, that the discovery was the single event that resulted in more press coverage (based on volume of articles) than any other.

The author of this book is married to (if I kept track correctly) Lord and Lady Carnarvon's great-grandson, so it's a mostly positive portrayal, and there are a few breezy mentions of things that probably have more salacious stories behind them, like her second marriage to the ex-husband of a friend - a lawsuit is vaguely hinted at. One wonders!
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LibraryThing member Brainannex
An interesting look behind the "real" Downton Abbey. Since I watch the show, I found myself picturing the TV characters and not the historical characters but it's worth a read to appreciate the scope of the history and adaptation thereof.
LibraryThing member schwager
This book is simply a piece of family propaganda. The author gushes over the center of the story - Lady Almina.. This is similar to one of those silly little stories one would find as a photocopied booklet for sale in a house museum gift shop.
LibraryThing member michigantrumpet
History of the 5th Earl and Countess of Carnarvon, owners of Highclere Castle, locale where the popular ITV Downton Abbey is filmed. The 5th Earl and Countess presided over the Castle at approximately the same time as the events of the television serial. This book will likely disappoint those who seeking telling details, which are few, between upstairs and downstairs. Much of the book follows various WWI battles and the concomitant comings and goings from Highclere. While this might be a good introductory volume on WWI, there are much better histories on that time period. For me, the book is also plagued by too much speculation on the author's part: "must have been ...", "might possibly have ...". Lady Almina was an indomitable spirit, persevering in real service to her countrymen with her WWI hospital. Lord Carnarvon famously funded and led the excavation of King Tut's tomb. Unfortunately, this book fails to live up to its promise as either a social history of its era or of these two very interesting characters.… (more)
LibraryThing member Pamici
Definitely enjoyed this book. Lots to think about. I'm sure it wasn't the most scholarly history of the time period, but just what I was looking for.
LibraryThing member brangwinn
Interesting reading for any Downton Abbey fan. I enjoyed reading about the real story taking place during World War II.

Original publication date

2011-09-29
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