Saturday, January 19, 2013

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

About the Book:

Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey tells the story behind Highclere Castle, the real-life inspiration for the hit PBS show Downton Abbey, and the life of one of its most famous inhabitants, Lady Almina, the 5th Countess of Carnarvon and the basis of the fictional character Lady Cora Crawley.  Drawing on a rich store of materials from the archives of Highclere Castle, including diaries, letters, and photographs, the current Lady Carnarvon has written a transporting story of this fabled home on the brink of war.

Much like her Masterpiece Classic counterpart, Lady Almina was the daughter of a wealthy industrialist, Alfred de Rothschild, who married his daughter off at a young age, her dowry serving as the crucial link in the effort to preserve the Earl of Carnarvon's ancestral home.  Throwing open the doors of Highclere Castle to tend to the wounded of World War I, Lady Almina distinguished herself as a brave and remarkable woman.

This rich tale contrasts the splendor of Edwardian life in a great house against the backdrop of the First World War and offers an inspiring and revealing picture of the woman at the center of the history of Highclere Castle. (from back cover)

My Thoughts:

It's no secret that I am a fan of the Downton Abbey series and have already featured a few Downton-esque books that help feed my addiction to the period and the upstairs/downstairs scenario. When I learned that the character of Lady Cora was inspired by women similar to the 5th Countess of Carnarvon, the Lady Almina, I knew I wanted to explore her story.

 And who better to give us a behind-the-scenes look at living in the beautiful and historic Highclere Castle than the present Countess of Carnarvon, Lady Fiona Carnarvon?

I devoured this book, and it was everything that I hoped it would be. Almina was a fabulously wealthy heiress who was contracted in marriage to the 5th Earl of Carnarvon. I was happy to learn that although theirs was an arranged marriage (her wealth was needed to pay for a heavily-in-debt estate), their relationship had a solid foundation in friendship and mutual admiration. She was a vivacious and energetic woman who took her role seriously as the Lady of the castle and supporter of Lord Carnarvon. She organized brilliant house parties and society balls, entertained royalty and the rich and famous, participated generously in charitable causes, and supported her husband's varied interests. The Lord Carnarvon was also quite an interesting person who had a passion for the technological advances of his time (he was quite the avid car collector and was fascinated with flying) and he loved to travel, especially to his beloved Egypt.( His long friendship with Howard Carter and the financial backing of the Carnarvons led to one of the greatest archaeological discoveries of the twentieth century!) Their relationship was a happy one, and they enjoyed all the privileges of their rank and wealth.

When war entered their lives, we learn that Almina's true passion in life was born.  Almina looked for ways to aid those in need, and money from her staggeringly wealthy family was never denied. She spearheaded the project of opening Highclere Castle as a place of recuperation for wounded officers, and it is here that we learn of her amazingly progressive ideas and her passion for caring for the sick. She approached healing holistically, insisting that the patients of Highclere receive not only the best medical care for their  physical injuries, but their emotional and mental health was also a priority. Highclere provided a place of peace and restoration, and the Countess worked tirelessly for several years in the capacity as nurse and administrator.

Filled with photos, details of daily domestic duties of the downstairs inhabitants, fashion, society news, background on the war, and the fascinating story of the family's involvement in the discovery of the tomb of King Tut, this book is a portrait of Edwardian high society and a remarkable couple. Fans of Downton Abbey will detect many story lines of the show have their origins in the real history of Highclere Castle and the Carnarvon family.

4.5/5 stars

Title: Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey: The Lost Legacy of Highclere Castle
Author: Lady Fiona Carnarvon (8th Countess of Carnarvon)
Publisher: Broadway
310 pages
genre: biography/nonfiction

*This book is from my personal library.


Mystica said...

This one is definitely for me!

Melissa @ Confessions of an Avid Reader said...

Fabulous review, Joanne! I have this one on the shelf and now I'm even more excited to read it.

Joanne said...

Mystica and Melissa -- I hope you enjoy it! While watching Downton Abbey now, I will also be able to envision Lady Almina's life within that magnificent home.

Holly (2 Kids and Tired) said...

I recently discovered Downton Abbey and I really want to read this!

Gerbera Daisy Diaries said...

Found it at the used book store! Score one for me!! Loved your review.

Joanne said...

Holly - I'm addicted to the show!

Melissa - Love those used book stores -- hope you enjoy Lady Almina's story.

Unknown said...

I've had this book on my TBR pile since (gasp!) last year! I need to read it asap...glad you enjoyed it so much!

Yvette said...

Oh, this sounds wonderful, Joanne. Another title to add to my list. I'm not DOWNTON ABBEY'S biggest fan since I seem to have stopped watching the show online. No reason why, I just lost interest.

But please don't hate me. :)

I will be looking for this book. Sometimes truth is more interesting than fiction.

I do love Hugh Bonneville though.

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