Review: Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey

Spoiler: I have never watched the TV show Downton Abbey. But after a string of fiction works I was looking for a non-fiction palette cleanser and this book caught my eye.

The book is essentially a history of Highclere Castle and its mistress, the 5th Countess of Carnarvon, Lady Amlina Herbert (nee Wombwell) and to a lesser degree, her husband and the staff that worked for her in the house and on the estate. It begins with her marriage to the 5th Earl Carnarvon in 1895 and ends (aside from a couple of wrap up chapters) with his death in April of 1923 (even though she was still stylized The Countess of Carnarvon that title passed to her daughter-in-law). We learn of her dubious beginnings as the illegitimate daughter of super wealthy Alfred de Rothschild and how he bankrolled her, her husband and Highclere for years (he appears to have been a very indulgent father) which ensured her rise to the uppermost schelon’s of British society.

The story of her married life and all that she accomplished as the chatelaine of a great house unfolds before us, from the famous and thoroughly successful house parties of the late Victorian and Edwardian age (the sums spent on these occasions were eye popping) through to her conversion of Highclere to a hospital during the first World War and her efforts to treat the wounded of that terrible event. 

But what of the Downton Abbey connection? That TV show was filmed at Highclere Castle which essentially gave the House and its history a new lease on life. I presume it was that fame which prompted the writing of this book.

Now when I read books of this nature I make a point to pay attention to the identity of the author as a history of a place or person is always coloured by the view and opinion of the writer telling the story. And in this case the person with the pen is none other than the current Countess of Carnarvon, Fiona Aitken, second wife of the 8th Earl. She does a perfectly adequate job as author but do remember, she is detailing the life of one of her husband’s ancestors so the picture we get of Lady Almina will always be a sympathetic one. She certainly comes across as something of a saintly figure. I have no reason to believe that she was anything other than as portrayed within the pages of this book but out of habit, I like to keep in mind what factors might be influencing the interpretation that I am reading. And I wish we had more of Almina’s own words. We as readers get very few direct quotes from her which was disappointing. Didn’t all ladies of that time have diaries or write copious amounts of letters?

I was very interested in the fact that Almina never spoke up for women’s suffrage even though she was interested in politics for a short while and it seems that that type of cause would have suited her energetic personality and drive to ‘be involved’. She certainly had a platform that would have lent her voice some influence but never chose to exert it in that manner. And she seemed to have a difficult relationship with her only son but there wasn’t much real comment as to why. I also would have liked to know more about the relationship she had with her father (who was not in fact publicly acknowledged as such but was believed by everyone to be such). And the author briefly alludes to Almina being domineering but again we get no real context to the statement.  It almost feels like the more difficult parts of her personality and life have been airbrushed out. So despite the book being about her I don’t feel like I came away really knowing the ‘real’ her. We are being given an ‘official sanitised version’ that helps enhance Highclere and the aristocratic Carnarvons. 

In terms of style this is a very lite, easy to read book which encompasses distinct eras and for the most part spans Almina’s life while her husband was alive. It’s strange but I almost feel like there are almost multiple separate books that could have been written from all of this rich material. These individual books could have gone into more detail and explored each aspect in more depth. Highclere and the glittery golden days pre war, it’s rebirth as a hospital, the lives of the staff who worked there, the nuts and bolts of how a great house such as Highclere functioned and so on. While we got tasters of this, I felt left wanting more. I wanted the house and the community that it was to be the heart and focus. What we got was very digestible and to it’s credit, was not bogged down nor did it drag but it just felt lacking in something. Critical and emotional insight perhaps? I’m not sure as it’s very hard to put my finger on it. How about this – it felt a bit like a propaganda piece. 

I also felt that the book lost it’s way and primary focus in the second half. In 1916 the hospital at Highclere moved to London and at this point it became less about the great house. It gets sidelined and the book becomes more of a potted history of the war in which Almina makes guest appearances. The house and what was going on there falls off the book’s radar. I would have been really interested in how Highclere coped after the hospital’s closure and move as well as how it reverted back to its former state and how it supported the war as a supplier of goods and other essentials. I wanted the focus to remain on the house so we could see it’s journey and evolution. Likewise a lot of coverage was given to the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun by the Earl and Howard Carter. While that is interesting in and of itself, again I thought it distracted from the story of the house. 

This book was an enjoyable read but in a very superficial way and I think it is a case of a missed opportunity to produce an in-depth definitive version of the 20th century history of Highclere and Lady Almina. 

Rating: 2 Stars

(Header Image: Sarah Kreig)