Any Downton Abbey fans out there? Personally, I’m eagerly awaiting Season Four…and in the meantime, my book club decided to read Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey by the Countess of Carnarvon. Not sure I’ve ever read something written by a countess before!
The book is a historical account of the house used for filming Downton Abbey, Highclere Castle, home of the Earl of Carnarvon. The focus is on one generation, centering around Lady Almina and her husband, the Fifth Earl.
The book opens with Lady Almina’s wedding in 1895, though it jumps back for some family history–rather scandalous history too! Almina was a very wealthy heiress by way of her “godfather,” Sir Alfred…though her actual parentage was apparently an open secret. With enough charm and money, you can even get past unmarried parents. It was both her charm and her money that attracted the Earl, and apparently they went on to be very happily married.
It’s not unlike Lord and Lady Grantham’s history…although Almina was an English heiress (French on one side), not American. She was about the same generation as the Downton Abbey parents too.
The book opened a bit slow for me–it’s a wonderful story, but I would have liked it better as historical fiction, rather than this somewhat skimming-the-surface historical account. And every so often I got the sense that the Countess was dragging in a fact because she could; just because you have the account book from the wedding, that doesn’t mean we need to know exactly how much the flowers cost.
However, the book picked up as it got into more of what life was like for society of that time. There’s plenty on life for the wealthy, and I especially liked the chapter on life for the servants at Highclere, and how the downstairs really functioned. You get bits and pieces of it from the TV show, but there were different details and it was interesting to hear the real history. I also got more invested in the characters (if I can call them that…) the more I read.
The book makes a major shift when World War I arrives (you know…Season Two). Lady Almina found a calling for nursing, first opening up Highclere to wounded soldiers, and then running a hospital in London. We follow the principle members of the family through the war, as well as accounts of some of the soldiers who stayed at Highclere. It was fascinating and exciting, and I was really engaged for about three-quarters of that section. There was nothing wrong with the last part, but it just began to feel like it went on a bit, for a book that is supposed to be about Highclere Castle, not a war memoir. Still, it was interesting to see this view on WWI.
After the war ended, the Fifth Earl was free to pursue his long-time interest in Egyptian archaeology. You may not recognize his name (I didn’t) but I’m sure you’ve heard his story before…he was one of the leaders of the expedition that found King Tut’s tomb. As I’m sure you can imagine, that dominated the last section of the book.
The book is never quite Downton Abbey-level drama, but there are very good family stories and stories of the time. It’s dry in spots but mostly interesting and sometimes exciting. Don’t expect too much of a tie to Downton Abbey. It’s not directly connected, though I could draw my own lines a few times–like comparing Lady Almina to Lady Cora, or when they talked about the servants. There were discussions on what the scullery maid’s duties were (so that would be Daisy…) or what the head housemaid did (Anna, of course–my favorite character).
If you like Downton but have no broader interest, I wouldn’t pick this up. But if you do have an interest in the time period, this was a very readable, quite good slice of British history.
Author’s Site: http://www.highclerecastle.co.uk/
A Cup of Ti
Book Group of One
2 Kids and Tired Books
Bailey’s and Books
Books in the Spotlight
The Printed Word
Found Between the Covers
Wow, who knew it was such a popular book! Anyone else?
Buy it here: Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey