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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