Binge-watching television shows really isn’t my thing, but that didn’t stop me from watching the first two seasons of Downton Abbey in a week-long staycation earlier this year. I eventually caught up on the third season, and when I read on another blog that there was a book written about the residents of the castle used for filming, I was intrigued. Some of my favorite parts of Downton Abbey revolved around the house-as-hospital plotline, and finding out that the Countess of Carnavon was involved in this as well cemented my interest. I downloaded a copy of Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey to my Kindle from the library, and dove right in (I only had it for two weeks, after all).
The book is written by Fiona Carnavon. If the last name looks familiar, it’s because she’s the current Countess of Carnavon, a descendant of Lady Almina herself. I was a bit worried that her close ties to the subject would compromise her objectivity, a worry that was well-founded. After spending the first chapter on an unnecessarily detailed journey through Almina Wombwell’s marriage to the Count of Carnavon, the next few chapters about life around the house were an exercise in fawning. Perhaps this is an unfair criticism, but with the emphasis on the lives of the servants in Downton Abbey, I was hoping for more details of their lives in the book. Clearly enough of Highclere Castle’s history bleeds into the television show that I thought this part might too. If the servants were an interesting part of life in the castle, it is hardly touched upon in Carnavon’s book until some of the employees bravely went off to fight in World War I.
That being said, the second half of the book mainly focuses on The Great War and Count Carnavon’s excavation activities in the Valley of the Kings in Egypt (he was Howard Carter’s patron in discovering King Tut’s tomb, and was one of the first people to go inside). These chapters are a great improvement: not only does Almina’s natural affinity for nursing shine through more naturally, but Fiona Carnavon becomes a bit better at speaking of the woman’s faults (her inability to curb her lavish spending habits, for one). As I said, my favorite parts of Downton Abbey involve the character development during their time hosting soldiers as a hospital, and this is easily my favorite part of Lady Almina’s story.
Overall, it’s a halfway decent book. Carnavon did sufficient research through the family archives, and the story is has ample anecdotes and funny asides. But I didn’t quite feel like I got to know Lady Almina, and I believe that the book could have benefited from using some more of the Countess’ own words. If you’re interested in what life was really like for the upper-class in England in the years before World War I (and how their lifestyle was affected during and after the war, it’s a good read.
Tip: If you’re looking to get a gist of the book and don’t want to commit to the whole thing, skip to the epilogue. It’s a good summary (meaning that it isn’t exactly an epilogue, but more an afterword, and that’s okay). If you like that, then you’ll like reading the rest of the book.
All those pertinent details:
- Title: Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey: The Lost Legacy of Highclere Castle
- Author: Lady Fiona Carnavon,
- Length: 321 (Kindle)
- Genre: Nonfiction, history, biography
- Rating: 2.5 stars out of 5