Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey is a description of the life of Lady Almina, who was the Countess of Carnarvon during the time that she resided in Highclere Castle. The series “Downton Abbey” is filmed at Highclere Castle and many events of Lady Almina’s life can be seen in the show.
While Lady Almina led a long and colorful life (born 1876, died 1969), this book only talks about the time in her life when she was in charge of Highclere Castle – from her marriage in 1895 to the 5th Earl of Carnarvon, to the Earl’s death in 1923. It’s a decorous but interesting book, one with a clear stake in promoting the image of Lady Almina as a good and benevolent person while glossing over her flaws. The book is well written, if biased, with its only flaw other than obvious bias being a tendency to say things like, “She must have thought” and “He must have felt”. This is a common thing in biographies and it drives me insane. How do you know what Lady Almina thought/felt/wondered? Maybe she was excited right before her wedding, but maybe she was thinking, “You know, I really like vanilla”.
Anyway, there is plenty here to edify and entertain. There are a lot of descriptions of grandeur, like the wedding (lavish), and the weekend when King Edward came to visit (extra-lavish). There are descriptions of the Earl’s preoccupation with motorcars. On one occasion, he was scolded by a policeman for driving at the outrageous speed of twenty miles per hour. Less amusingly, he was injured in a car crash that left him with permanent, crushing migraines.
The two most gripping events in the book involve WWI and King Tut’s Tomb. During WWI, Lady Almina turned Highclere into a hospital and did hands-on nursing herself. For me the funniest and yet most poignant moment in the book, the one that most succinctly demonstrated how much life had changed for Lady Almina and the Highclere inhabitants, came when Lady Almina’s son came home from the war. Lady Almina immediately and matter-of-factly asked him whether his clothes had been fumigated and whether he had been deloused – a practical and pressing question, but not one you’d expect the pre-WWI Lady Almina to have considered.
After the War, The Earl was instrumental in discovering the tomb of King Tutankhamen. The Earl funded the project and Lady Almina attended some digs although she seems to have been more interested in making sure their time in Egypt was as lavish as their time in England.
Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey is a book by a member of the aristocracy about a member of the aristocracy and is aimed at readers who are fond of the aristocracy, so it’s not a hard-hitting expose. If you do want a hard-hitting expose, there’s a book called The Life and Secrets of Almina Carnarvon, by William Cross ( A | BN | K), that unleashes ALL the scandalous rumors possible about Lady Almina. I haven’t read the book so I have no idea if it’s any good nor do I know how well the author did his homework. For the most part, I gather that it doesn’t contradict Lady Almina so much as it fills in the blanks. Where Lady Almina refers in vague terms to Lady Almina not getting along with her son, Life and Secrets goes into detail, and where Lady Almina barely mentions a hugely scandalous court case involving Lady Almina’s second marriage, Life and Secrets tells you everything. There are a lot of blanks in Lady Almina and it turns out that all those blanks are filled with juicy rumors, nom, nom, nom.
If you have an interest in Edwardian history and the changes brought about by WWI, then I think you’ll find this book readable and enjoyable. If you are a fan of Downton Abbey, I think you’ll love this book since it directly addresses that place and period of time. If you like your history to be well rounded and gritty, then this book won’t do it for you. It glosses over the difficulties faced by servants and tenants, and the impact of Lady Almina’s over-spending on the estate, as well as the scandal around Lady Almina's second marriage and the relative poverty in which she died. It also glosses over Lady Almina’s personal life in order to portray a uniformly benevolent, if overly generous, lady of the manor. The author, the current Countess of Canarvon, clearly has an image to sell. But she sells it well, and the pictures alone are delightful. This is an enjoyable peek at history – just don’t expect it to give you the whole picture.