Lady Almina and the real Downton Abbey: Facts that give rise to Fiction

Downton Abbey in real life is Highclere Castle, situated among a thousand acres of beautiful parkland, perching on a hill with a vantage point of even more spectacular views. It is home to the Earls of Carnarvon for centuries. The book is written by Fiona Carnarvon. Lady Almina is the great grandmother of her husband, the 8th Earl of Carnarvon. The book chronicles the life and legacy of Lady Almina, who married into Highclere at 19, and evolved from a youthful debutante to a seasoned and capable, aristocratic lady with a heart. Here is the source material for the fictional creation so well received by viewers all over the world.

I’m not one easily swayed to follow what’s being hailed in current culture. But for some reasons I’ve been drawn to the human drama of the hugely successful Downton Abbey. Until I read this book I have not thought that mere facts can be as engaging as fiction. Compared to the epic proportion of historical events detailed in the book, the TV series are but minute vingnettes, albeit they do have their endearing appeal.

This is my library copy of the book after I finished reading it. There are no less than 80 tiny yellow stickies to mark my interest:

At first, I was expecting a book offering tidbits of the Highclere Castle, its designs and architecture, and how its life, both upstairs and downstairs, corresponds with the TV production, etc.

But while it lacks the design and architectural specifics I was looking for, the book has brought me something else. Yes, there is a myriad of Edwardian high society accounts, the fashion and the opulence, as expected. But to my surprise, the latter part of the book offers a greater appeal to me. I was fully absorbed by its massive archival information on The Great War, from the trenches in Europe to the battlefields in the Middle East, wartime to post-war politics, Highclere’s involvement in international power brokerage, George’s brother Aubrey and T.E. Lawrence’s friendship, and the last chapters bring me to the archeological site of the Valley of the Kings in Egypt.

Nurse Almina

Unlike the Crawleys in Downton Abbey, the Carnarvons threw themselves fully into the war effort without hesitation. As soon as Britain entered The Great War (1914-1918), Highclere was turned into a well-equipped hospital, not just a convalescence home. Financially supported by her wealthy father, Almina hired the best in medical personel, well-trained nurses and specialized doctors, and furnished the Caslte with state-of-the-art equipment. Almina herself oversaw the whole operation and heavily involved in personal nursing care as well. A real-life Lady Cora/Isabel Crawley working in unity.

Seeing Matthew Crawley’s muddy face in the trenches cannot convey to me the horrors of the war. The detailed accounts in the book are terrifying to read. There were so many ways to die: guns and shells, broken bones even just a broken femur, long, bumpy rides to a hospital, gas, hunger, diseases, lack of medical supplies and doctors, even rain. Non-stop rain in Passchendaele had caused trenches to collapse, drowning many soldiers in the mud.

The Battle of Somme claimed 60,000 lives on its first day on July 1, 1916. Four months later, 415,000 British and Dominions soldiers had been killed or wounded. The Battle of Ypres saw the Germans use a new weapon. 168 tonnes of chlorine gas was released into Allied positions. 5,000 French soldiers in the trenches died within ten minutes, 10,000 were blinded as they escaped. In 1917, the number of British casualties and injured totalled 800,000. Many of Highclere staff were wounded and killed, those sent home were the lucky ones. The missing and the ones buried on foreign soil made the impact even more heartbreaking.

The Dowager Countess of Carnarvon, Elsie, had always been receptive to innovations and improvements. Unlike her counterpart in Downton Violet Crawley, Elsie welcomed electricity and the telephone. In 1919, at 63, she became vice-chairman of the Vocal Therapy Society and promoted the use of singing to help shell-shocked men to overcome debilitating stammers. Umm… she would have made a good team with Lionel Logue, who set up shop on Harley Street. Just ask Bertie KGVI, he knew it worked.

On a totally different note, the last chapters of the book transport me to the archaeological site of the Valley of the Kings in Luxor, Egypt. Almina’s husband George Herbert, 5th Earl of Carnarvon, was one of the last British aristocratic archaeologists, having spent £50,000 (£10 million in today’s money) over the course of fourteen years on excavating in Egypt.

Howard Carter, left, & Carnarvon at King Tut’s tomb

Lord Carnarvon personally hired the expert archaeologist Howard Carter to team up with him in his pursuit of Egyptian antiquities. Their breakthrough work came in 1922, when they discovered the burial chamber of the young King Tutankhamun. Unlike rumors that had distressed the archaeological dual that they would ship the finds to England, the King Tut artifacts have  been the possession of the Egyptian government since the discovery.

I had not realized the connection before… how Downton Abbey could have a certain degree of separation from King Tut. But the book soon ends with the sad news that the already weak Lord Carnarvon soon succumbed to illness. He died in Cairo at age 57, just a few months after the excavation. It’s noted in the book that at the time of his death, back at Highclere Castle in the night, his beloved terrier Susie howled once and died.

Here I’ve just touched on a few yellow stickies. You need to read the book to grasp all the significant events during that first quarter of the 20th century. As the book has been written and published ‘in record time’ as the author has noted, likely to coincide with the broadcast of Downton Abbey Season 2, it is not a literary work, not even a social or political commentary of any sort. Yes, I was looking for the author’s view on aristocracy and the Empire. Nevertheless, it is a compact historical account that chronicles the lives of some individuals who had left indelible marks in an era of irreversible change and new discoveries. 

Excellent Photos, A Bibliography of researched works and archival materials, and an Index make up the supplementary resources.

~ ~ ~ Ripples

Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey: The Lost Legacy of Highclere Castle by The Countess of Carnarvon, Broadway Paperbacks, NY, November, 2011, 310 pages.

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Other posts you may like:

Quotable Quotes from Downton Abbey

The Rant of the Armchair Traveller

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Published by

Arti

If she’s not birding by the Pond, Arti’s likely watching a movie, reading, or writing a review. Bylines in Asian American Press, Vague Visages, Curator Magazine.

22 thoughts on “Lady Almina and the real Downton Abbey: Facts that give rise to Fiction”

  1. I’d meant to read this book when I was watching Downton Abbey, but like so many things, I forgot about it. Thanks for bringing it to mind again. For a couple of months I faithfully entered a PBS contest each day to win a trip featuring the Downton Abbey locations, but alas I didn’t win! But maybe reading this will be a nice consolation. I’d always been fascinated by Lord Carnarvon and the King Tut story, with the dog dying at the same time, too, but had no idea there was so much more! Thanks!

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    1. Cathy,

      Lots of info, esp. about Highclere’s involvement in the war effort, and some more. But not much about the surrounding, the grounds, the thousand acres, or even the interior of the Castle. Maybe you’d like to start planning for a trip there… that would be my ideal trip, visiting all the famous places used in films, like Highclere, Pemberley (I know it’s fictitious, but the ‘real’ one), or even the country house in Howards End. Thanks for liking and commenting. (On another note, I had to skip the current 2 posts on your blog due to my ailurophobia… trust you’d understand. 😉 )

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      1. One method of conquering ailurophobia is repeated exposure in small amounts until you can see photos and read about felines without fear! 😉 If you wish to try this procedure, my blog awaits you. I just posted about butterflies, if you can to take a peek!

        I would love to plan a trip to England…Maybe all of your blog readers can plan a group tour. Wouldn’t that be amazing!

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        1. Cathy,

          Thanks but I don’t think I’d really want a cure… especially if it involves mustering up the courage to confront. 😉 However, butterflies are free and one of my favorite creatures, so I’ll definitely go and take a look.

          And what a great idea! A group tour to England, visiting the locations of literary homes and places. I think that’s just marvellous. We should all come up with our dream itinerary and have a blog hop at least. But yes, keep this in mind, you’ll never know, one day…

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    1. Thanks for stopping by Ellen. Actually all the research had been done by the author of the book. I just put a yellow sticky on the page. 😉

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    1. Diane,

      I usually have stickies on a book if I’m thinking of writing about it… esp. with a library copy. As for this one, I’d just say it’s very informative, a light read with lots of interesting facts, people and events. It’s not a literary work, and don’t expect deep analysis or commentary. But for me, it’s a springboard to other reading.

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    1. Hope you’ll find it interesting. Not a literary gem, but lots to find out esp. the people at Highclere. Just got a notice to pick up Jessica Fellowes’s The World of Downton Abbey, should be an interesting shift from facts to fiction.

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  2. I love this era of history, not least because there are so many connections between the people who had money and power at that time. I hadn’t made the link between Lord Carnarvon and this particular house and family – when I was younger I was absolutely fascinated by Egyptology and spent hours poring over the museum catalogue of the King Tut exhibit that my brother had been to London to see. Ah, happy memories! Wonderful post, Arti, gorgeously rich in detail.

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    1. litlove,

      I admit my interest in this period of history began with Downton Abbey. And now this book about the Highclere Castle and Almina is like a springboard to further reading. Robert Graves’ Goodbye to all that now is high on my TBR list. I read it during my university days, and now decades later, I’m feel I can appreciate it much more.

      A visit to the British Museum is a must every time I visit London. While I can’t remember all the items in the Egyptian exhibits, I remember the Rosetta Stone clearly. But you know, I’ve also been to the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. We were ushered in and lined up to view the most iconic of all… the King Tut mask. It was quite an experience.

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  3. Arti, this is just what I hoped it would be and it’s definitely on the “to read” list. I’m intrigued with the Egyptian and especially the Great War and the integration of that in a setting I “know” will be fascinating. I never thought all that much about the Great War until I read the first of Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs books, where it figures prominently (actually in more than the first, but then more as background). Now I am particularly intrigued. On a different note, when in London, I saw the play version of The King’s Speech. Regrettably, no Colin Firth, but a performance worthy of him and a wonderful production.

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    1. Jeanie,

      Again, welcome back! Yes, I never knew the connections of Highclere to so many historical figures and events until I read the book. I’m sure you’ll enjoy all the details in it. And oh what an experience to see the stage play. It goes back one full circle doesn’t it, for it was the play being read out that first caught the attention of Tom Hooper’s mom who told her son about it. Then the movie. I hope the play can stay for a while longer. Movies are so ephemeral. Here today, gone tomorrow… even acclaimed ones.

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  4. Speaking of degrees of separation – there are two points of interesting connection here.

    One has to do with the excavations in Egypt. When the latest King Tut exhibit came to Houston last year, I went three times. I’ve loved the history of Carter and Carnarvon for years, and the exhibit was absolutely outstanding. Of course there were marvelous artifacts – including one of King Tut’s beds with the woven webbing still intact! – but even better was the entire presentation.

    Part of the exhibit space was designed to replicate the archeologist’s living quarters at the site, and you entered the heart of the exhibit through those quarters. There were newsreels from the time of the discovery, and an excellent film on the DNA work done with the remains of Tut himself. The introduction to the exhibit came via film, viewed as if inside a pyramid chamber – you can see it here.

    Now, here’s the giggle. My maternal grandmother was a Crowley, and all the family history I have is the Crowley side. I did some snooping, and sure enough – the Crawley/Crowley relationship is real. “My” Crowleys came from County Down in Ireland, but there are many, many Crawleys in, for example, County Louth.

    With this many points of connection, I think I’d darned well better put this book on my list! Wonderful review – by the time I got done poking around in all the corners, I felt like an employee of Lord Carnarvon!

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    1. Linda,

      First off, thanks for your supplementary info and the clip. I’m sure you must have been fascinated by the exhibits. Going there three times, I’m not surprised you’d have done that, considering your inquisitive mind and keen interests in so many fields! I’m glad they have these itinerant exhibits… save a lot of time in travelling. It’s a long way to Cairo, but I was fortunate to have the chance to visit the Middle East a few years back, twice actually. I’d gone to the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, and seen the marvellous exhibits. Some ingenious ones dating back to thousands of years. I remember clearly something very ‘trivial’: the hinges on the travelling lawn chair of the Pharoah’s. Now that was thousands of years ago, but it functioned like what we have today in our backyard or bring on camping trips… completely foldable for travelling. But the most memorable, of course, was seeing the mask of King Tut’s mummy… the icon of Egyptian antiquities.

      So you’re a distant Crawley… how marvellous! You must pick up a Downton Abbey DVD, Linda, I highly recommend it. You’ll appreciate this book more if you’ve seen the series, albeit Almina and Lord Carnarvon are themselves interesting legends. Anyway, I’m sure you’ll be intrigued by the fiction as well as the facts. 😉

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  5. Somehow I’m quite pleased to read from your excellent review that the real family in that house were enthusiastic assistants during the war. And what an incomprehensible war it was, just reading the statistics you shared, once again. When I was growing up, WWII was far more in my consciousness, mostly because so many movies have been made about it. It wasn’t until watching “Gallipoli” that I began to understand an even more terrible time and war. Those decades of the fin de siècle were momentous in so many ways, which is one of the reasons I love “Downton Abbey.” Watching how different personalities welcome, or not, progress, for instance.

    Thank you, Arti, for this fascinating post.

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    1. Yes, I think we all want to see that the rich and aristocratic have a heart too. I was pleased too when I read how much the Carnarvons had done for the war effort and Almina herself being a hands-on carer.
      I was attracted to the WWI era since Downton Abbey, and I find it poignant and significant that individuals and the whole social order had been changed due to the War.
      I’m still going on a ‘Downton Abbey ripple streak’, just finished watching Colin Firth’s Lost Empires and really enjoyed it. I’m not done yet with this era. 😉

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  6. Fascinating details, Arti. Now that I’ve started on the Downton Abbey series, I’m interested in some of the pre- and during war accounts. Just found this book in one of the other libraries in the county’s network and have put it on hold. I’d finished most of the Maisie Dobbs series set just a few weeks ago so this might be a good transition.

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    1. nikkipolani,

      I think you’ll really enjoy the DA series. This book is a good compendium, but probably you’d like to watch it first before going to this book. I’m very interested to know what you think of both… your observations of their sumptuous meals, with Mrs. Patmore at the helm of the kitchen downstairs… maybe on your blog. 😉

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