Sunday, September 28, 2014

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

Source of book: Borrowed from the Library

My wife already read this book, and found it interesting. It had been on my list as well, and it seemed like a nice option to read while camping, so I grabbed it. I wasn’t able to finish it on the trip (although I did finish The Daughter of Time), but got through it eventually. (The book was good enough, but I have been swamped on evenings lately.) 

Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey is the story behind the fictionalized PBS show Downton Abbey. I will have to confess that I have never seen more than short clips of the show. I have a number of friends who are big fans, and my wife has enjoyed the couple of seasons she has watched. It sounds interesting, but I am just not much of a TV watcher, and the chances of me actually committing to an entire season of something is probably not going to happen. There is a reason that this is a book-oriented rather than TV-oriented blog.

Lady Almina was the 5th Countess of Carnarvon. This book tells of her life during the time she occupied Highclere Castle - the real life inspiration and filming location for Downton Abbey - from the day she married the Earl of Carnarvon to the aftermath of his untimely death. A bit of her early life is told, as is a bit of her life afterward, particularly her efforts to found hospitals and establish modern medicine in England.

The very fact that Almina was able to become a Countess in the first place caused a bit of a stir. Almina was the love child of Albert de Rothschild, the immensely wealthy banker with Jewish German heritage, and Marie Wombwell, a Frenchwoman estranged from her worthless husband. The whole situation is a fabulous example of the sexual code of the Victorian upper classes. A divorce was a far bigger scandal than an affair - even one producing a child. Provided it was kept discreet. Never mind that everyone knew about it, as long as it was never official or acknowledged.

The social effects on each of the parties involved is rather interesting. Albert de Rothschild paid no social penalty whatsoever for the affair, except with his own family, who probably felt that their own social status was insecure, being one of the first Jewish families to be accepted into society - and even Parliament - without being forced to convert. Their worries notwithstanding, Albert suffered no social consequences for his affair. Marie, on the other hand, was never accepted into society. But this wasn’t so much because of the affair itself, but because her estranged husband was such a disgrace. Her ill-fated connection to him prevented her from social climbing, and the affair caused her more problems than it did him in the social sense.

Almina benefitted from being born in the latter part of the era, when bastard children weren’t subject to quite the same degree of prejudice. Her beauty - and the fact that Albert publicly made it known that he would give her his fortune - papered over her dubious birth to a degree. Nevertheless, it was a minor scandal that the Earl of Carnarvon would pick an illegitimate child for his bride. (Likewise, when the Earl’s younger sister married a man who was also a bastard, it was mentioned in the diaries of her relatives with tittering disapproval.) Fortunately for Almina, her mother-in-law, the Earl’s stepmother, would take a liking to her, and eased the transition by championing her to all concerned.

Another interesting social observation from reading this book was the reminder of exactly what the strict social hierarchy meant for the various players. The immense gap between what Almina spent in a month and the yearly wage of her servants was unfathomable. As were the long hours that the servants spent at their tasks and the degree of control that they were under in their personal lives. And a job at Highclere was considered to be among the best possible available, and servants would spend their entire lives - and many generations - in that service. The author - the current Countess of Carnarvon, Lady Fiona - writes in fascinating detail about the lives of the servants. According to the acknowledgments, she interviewed those of the servants still living who remembered Lady Almina, and some of their descendents who still work there and remember the stories from their long-departed ancestors. The author is sympathetic, with modern sensibilities about inequality, perhaps born in part from the irreversible changes to the fortunes of the English nobility in the wake of the Second World War.

One of the bits that stuck with me from this section was the fact that unlike many noble households, the Carnarvons actually encouraged and permitted servants to have romantic relationships. Many of their staff eventually married. This was by no means common. Servant girls in particular were liable to be dismissed if a man started showing them attention. After all, once she married, she would be expected to leave the service, caring for the home and children and maybe finding a different occupation. (In one case, a couple saved money to open a tavern before they married, so that they could both work at it.) There are reflections here, perhaps, of the old Roman law forbidding slaves to marry, because that would distract them from their greater duty to their masters.

It is an interesting reminder that the past seems most idyllic when we imagine ourselves as wealthy, and that life wasn’t like that for the majority of people. Even the servants, despite hours that would seem barbaric to us now, had it better than many others. One quaint custom at Highclere (and probably others) was that of using the drippings from the many extravagant meals as a way of feeding the lower classes while making a little extra money for the kitchen staff. A peasant could buy a tray of drippings for a penny - a good deal - and the servants would split the total pot at Christmastime.

In any case, however, Highclere was considered by the servants to be an outstanding place to work, and the Carnarvons to be pleasant, kind employers.

In connection with the estate, I really should mention a great name. The gardens and grounds were designed in the 17th Century by a well known landscape architect named Capability Brown. Perhaps his parents had high expectations for him?

The 5th Earl of Carnarvon was quite a character himself. A bit in the vein of Kenneth Grahame’s Mr. Toad, , he loved motorcars, and managed to get in several wrecks, one of which injured him so badly that he never quite recovered. As the book puts it, at age 35, he was no longer a vigorous man. As one on the wrong side of that number, that was a bit sobering to read.

The Earl’s passion was Egyptology, and he accumulated an extensive collection of antiquities even before marrying Almina. Before and after World War One, he financed and accompanied Howard Carter on his excavations. They both had an unshakeable belief that they could find archeological gold in the Valley of the Kings. In 1923, they finally made the discovery to beat all discoveries. King Tut’s unspoiled tomb. Neither before nor since has such a pristine and unplundered discovery been made in Egypt, and it was a worldwide sensation at the time.

Alas, soon afterward, and before the burial chamber could be opened, the Earl nicked a mosquito bite with his razor, and contracted an infection that led to his death a few weeks later. Ah, the golden age, before antibiotics.

Speaking of which, a large portion of this book tells of the conversion of Highclere to a hospital during World War One. It is easy to forget just what a debacle that whole war was. It didn’t have to happen. Had someone, anyone, been a clearer head, it might have been prevented. The petty assassination didn’t really matter except for all the treaties that guaranteed that a little Balkan conflict would draw in Russia. Then Austria and Germany. Then France and thence England. Just stupid. And if had stopped there, it would have been bad enough. But it didn’t. World War Two was really just a continuation of the first war, except now with Hitler and the Holocaust. While the Bolsheviks may well have had a successful revolution sometime down the road, it isn’t certain. World War One gave them an opening which they seized, giving us Stalin, and them Mao and others with their thirst for purges. Playing the “what if” game is interesting, which is why it is fun to wonder what might have happened to the world, had Russia not decided to try to expand its influence, or if the Austrians and Germans had realized how bad the war would be, or even if the French and English had negotiated a separate peace and let Austria and Russia battle it out. What if?

Every time I read something about World War One, I am reminded again of how awful the suffering was. The sheer numbers are horrifying, and the decimation of the young men of an entire generation is sobering.

The book also points out, however, that even those catastrophic numbers are dwarfed by those killed by the Spanish Flu in the aftermath of the war. (WWI: 16 million deaths, about 6 of which were civilians. Spanish Flu: 50-100 million estimated worldwide.)

Crazy times, to say the least.

This book alternated between compelling narratives and sections which were a bit tedious, due to the long lists of people and things. I didn’t for example, find all of the renowned guests at Almina’s wedding (or the other weddings) to be all that interesting. That is probably in part because I don’t know or care to learn who all the noble families of England are. Likewise, the details of the parties was a bit over the top, although that might have been the point. Lavishness is presumably boring to those not into that sort of thing.

Still, Lady Fiona writes rather well on the whole, and the story itself is quite fascinating. I have always loved strong women, and Almina certainly was that. Also admirable was her compassion and determination to use her wealth for the good of others.

I’m sure a Downton Abbey fan would find even more to like in this book than I did, but even those of us without that background can enjoy it.

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