Carnavon, Lady Fiona. Lady Almina and the Story of the Real Downton Abbey

Hodder & Stoughton, $32.99

Days of our aristocratic lives

Lady Almina, the 5th Countess of Carnavon and illegitimate daughter of Alfred de Rothschild, is a notable figure of history. Married to George, the Earl of Carnavon, at the age of 19, Almina brought a large Rothschild-sponsored dowry toHighclereCastle and the ailing fortunes of the Carnavon dynasty. Highclere is the castle in which the TV series Downton Abbey was filmed. Life for the Canarvons at the turn of last century, as described here by Highclere’s current chatelaine, Lady Fiona Carnavon, was a whirl of balls and banquets.

But then came the ‘war to end all wars’. Almina used the resources at her disposal – a castle and lots of capital – to create a hospital, first at Highclere and later in Mayfair, London. World War I put a pause on Highclere’s salad days, and Lady Fiona Carnavon doesn’t shy from historical horrors in her description of the time (which provide some of the meatiest pages in a somewhat breathy book). But after the war, allowing recovery time, the Earl and Lady Almina returned to gentler pursuits. One of these wasEgypt. For many years, George had been seeking archaeological riches in conjunction with Howard Carter, and in the early 1920s they struck more than gold: Tutankhamen’s tomb.

Lady Fiona Carnavon paints an image of an earlier time in intricate detail, most of the time. This book covers the years until around the late 1920s, which stores a slice of modern Highclere history outside these pages.

Reviewed January 2012