Monday, July 09, 2012

Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey, by The Countess of Carnarvon

I absolutely loved and adored Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey: The Lost Legacy of Highclere Castle. This book was a super fun read and I'm so glad that my ("real life") friend recommended it to me! If you are a fan of the Downton Abbey television series, you'll absolutely love this book. Even if you are not, and are just a fan of history or biographies in general, you will likely enjoy this quite well. I do believe this will be one of my favorite reads of 2012. (Yes, yes, that's true!)

Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey is written by the current Countess of Carnarvon who resides in Highclere Castle. Highclere's fictional name is Downton Abbey which is likely how you know it best. Lady Fiona Carnarvon researched her family history in order to tell the story of Lady Almina who lived at Highclere from 1895 to 1923. The reason Lady Almina would be of significant interest to the modern television viewer is that she is the inspiration for the character of Lady Cora Crawley. It is easy to tell that the current Countess of Carvarvon did a great deal of research when putting this book together. She includes a good many pictures of the Carnarvon ancestors, along with transcripts from personal letters and various other documents. It's so fun to read bits of diary entries and letters which help to bring the past to life. Also fun is to read the acknowledgements wherein Lady Fiona thanks, "Paul and Rob the chefs [who made sure she] ate, and the household staff . . . [who] worked around [her] trying to tidy and giving [her] endless cups of tea." Given the fact that she was able to devote so much exclusive attention to her work, we are gifted with a well-written history of one very amazing lady (or, Lady, in the official sense).

Lady Almina married the 5th Earl of Carnarvon in June 1895 and saw Highclere through the turn of the century and on through World War I. She was only 19 when she married, and she was heiress to a fortune, which was desperately needed in order to save Highclere. Not only did she have the money to attract Lord Carnarvon, but she also had a bubbly and vivacious personality. She was a gifted hostess and appeared to be well-liked by those who knew her. She was a bit spoiled in the money and comfort department, and Lady Fiona acknowledges this. However, Almina seemed not to to let her financial standing and status in society keep her from caring for the needs of other. On the contrary, she used her access to funds to benefit society and those in need around her. She was a very generous woman - almost to a fault!

Most notably, during World War I, Lady Almina opened Highclere up as a hospital for wounded soldiers. She had a talent and a gift for nursing and not only did she hire the best nurses she could with money she had available to her, but she personally tended to the wounded soldiers. She did everything from cleaning wounds to attending their funerals. Most of the book focuses on her efforts during the war. I personally found the attention that Lady Fiona gave to documenting stories of soldiers and patients who came into contact with Almina and Highclere was quite fascinating. (To give you a tease, there was a real Mr. Bates!) I really admired the way that Lady Almina handled the challenges set before her during the War and the work she was able to accomplish. She might have very easily tried to hide herself from the effects of war but she did not. She threw herself in the fray and brought healing and relief to men and families who lives were irreversibly changed by serving king and country. She cared. And when a woman cares, wonderful things tend to happen.

Another reason I admire her is because while she had a passion for politics and had a platform from which to share her views and opinions, she did not champion women's rights. (I'm not necessarily commenting on a woman's right to vote here, ok? I'm glad I have such a right and I'm grateful for those who saw fit to fight for it!) But I like Almina's attitude towards a woman's role in society. She didn't argue that women are somehow better than men and she didn't try to bully men with her speeches. She seemed to recognize that there is a place for both men and women in society and that, by working together, great change can be effected. Here is a quote from a speech she gave to the Newbury Unionist Woman's Association in January 1911:

"In the dark ages, which are very much behind us, we used to be called the weaker sex. We never were, and we never shall be weaker in our patriotism. In this as in all similar matters we are neither inferior nor superior, but only very different and I am convinced that we shall do most good to our country and her cause if instead of imitating men we endeavor to widen and perhaps enrich the spirit of public life by simply being ourselves."

I think that is well said. I do not believe that women are better or worse than men. I agree with Almina wholeheartedly that we are different in a valuable way. We have different gifts to bring to the table, as it were, and are suited to change society in different ways than men are. (Directive to regular commenters on here: if you disagree, you don't need to tell me so again. It being my blog, I'm sharing my opinion. Sharing yours is acceptable so long as it's not launched as a personal attack or shared with the goal of trying to change my mind. Not. going. to. happen.)

All this to say, I really admire Lady Almina's spirit here. She didn't sit around writing her hands, worrying and fretting but not doing. Instead she found an area where she was specially suited to make a difference and she did so. Her natural talents had a natural niche and I would say her work with wounded soldiers was beautiful indeed. Not only did it save many lives but her money and efforts also changed the way that medicine was practiced during and after the war for the better. Her natural talents brought about great and valuable changes. She didn't approach her work in condemnation of man, but in an attempt to compliment and provide a service she was very gifted at. Again, I think she did her work beautifully!

Other interesting things to note:

* Almina "fell pregnant" (as Lady Fiona describes it) twice. She produced a son and heir first, much to the delight of the family. However, she never really connected to her son and they did not have a close relationship. She did, however, find great delight in her daughter, Eve.

* Almina's husband was and is well-known for more than just being the 5th Earl of Carnarvon. He teemed up with Howard Carter and in 1922 the two men discovered King Tut's tomb! (It was Almina's money which helped fund their excavations.)

* The 5th Earl of Carnarvon, aside from a love of Egypt, also developed an unhealthy fascination with motor cars. Actually, Lady Fiona's descriptions of Lord George reminded me quite a bit of Toad of Toad Hall in The Wind and the Willows. Despite the fact that Lord George was injured in a car accident and was taken to court on more than one occasion for speeding (he was caught going over 11 miles an hour!) he still loved the motor cars.

If you haven't guessed by now - I found Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey quite fascinating. I would love to read this book again. And again. And then perhaps even again! I'll definitely be slipping this book on my shelf to enjoy in the future and heartily recommend to others!


Amy @ Hope Is the Word said...

Sold! :-). I miss DA.

Shonya said...

I initially had no interest and almost didn't even read your review, but then I skimmed the review and your passion sucked me in. sigh Do you have any idea how many books I'd like to read this summer???!!! :)

Melissa said...

I've been wanting to read this myself. Glad to see your review to confirm that I would like it!

*carrie* said...

Interesting. I've loved watching Downton, but I don't know if I would like the book. Historical fiction, particularly when including war, is not my favorite genre.

Sherry said...

Great summary of the book, Carrie! So glad you enjoyed it too.

I am laughing about the Earl and the motor car because I thought the exact same thing about Mr. Toad in "Wind in the Willows" as I read it! Though his (Earl Carnarvon) accident wasn't funny, it was hard not to laugh thinking of Mr. Toad.

Taia said...

Sometime you should explain if your view applies to all women (I would vote to make it illegal for women to become OB/GYN's or visit female OBGYN's, because the law should dictate women's place in society) or a personal preference (I prefer to work at home but believe in women's equality before the law)

Christy said...

I just started reading this. I was glad to read your review!

A Faithful Journey said...

I love watching Downton Abbey and had no idea there were books also!! This makes me smile...especially since the book sounds soo good! Must check for this st the library! :)

Barbara H. said...

Somehow I missed the Downton Abbey bandwagon but I do hope to catch up with ti some day (I just caught up with White Collar last night! Just in tome for the new season to start tonight.) This sounds like a great supplement to that series -- and an interesting book in itself.

Diary of an Autodidact said...

This book sounds fascinating. I haven't seen Downton Abbey, although I have several friends who are fans. (Generally, I can either read or watch TV, but don't have time for both.)

I found the King Tut connection interesting, and also the civic and charitable involvement. And for the record, I did like her quote, which was probably a bit revolutionary in its own way at the time it was made.

BerlinerinPoet said...

Well, I'm sold! And I haven't even seen the series. :-)

Sky said...

Definitely going on MY list! Thank you for the review! I had seen the title before but wasn't sure whether I wanted to try it.

Susanne said...

I've seen this and wondered about it. Going on the list!

Lisa Spence said...

On my wishlist, thanks to your review!

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