Thursday, January 17, 2013

Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey

Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey: The Lost Legacy of Highclere Castle
The Countess of Carnarvon

By Jesse Kornbluth

Four million Americans watched the premiere of the second season of "Downton Abbey" last year.

Click here to order Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey: The Lost Legacy of Highclere Castle.
A few weeks ago, 7.9 million Americans watched the premiere of season three.

That's a rather dramatic audience gain, wouldn't you say? It's also four times the average viewership of PBS on a Sunday night. That puts "Downton" in NBC/CBS/ABC territory --- a cult favorite grown up to mainstream status.

What's the attraction? Aficionados have no end of explanations. Here's an amusing one, from Alessandra Stanley, in The New York Times:

A lot of time and discussion have been spent deciphering the extraordinary success of "Downton Abbey," but it's actually pretty simple. This series about British aristocrats and their servants is "Fifty Shades of Grey" soft-core pornography, but fixated on breeding and heritage rather than kinky sex ....

Here's another explanation: It's not just the people, it's the house. Because it's filmed at Highclere Castle, arguably Britain's most famous stately home, "Downton Abbey' is real-estate porn at a level never seen before, even in English mini-series.

How stately is Highclere Castle? The ultimate. When Evelyn Waugh thought something was of the highest quality, he said it was "very Highclere." It is venerable --- it was built between 1842 and 1856. And unusual --- it had a single architect, whose other major credit was the Houses of Parliament. And it has been brilliantly maintained. The current owners, the Earl and Countess of Carnarvon, reportedly spent 11 million pounds ($17 million) to bring it to 19th century crispness.
Highclere Castle, drawn in 1889.
The staff of Highclere Castle in Almina's day.
As it happens, Julian Fellowes is a close friend of the Carnarvons --- excuse me; of the Earl and Countess --- and many is the weekend when the writer and his wife sat around a giant table in a gigantic dining room as the Earl and Countess told stories about Ye Olde Days at Highclere. As a listener, Fellowes is "very Highclere." Later, he created "Downton Abbey."

And now The Countess --- she's not at all stuffy, and I'm sure, if she knew us, that she'd let us call her Fiona --- has written a book, "Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey: The Lost Legacy of Highclere Castle." It's not just a money-raising project. It's a real book, and far more interesting than it needed to be. [To buy the paperback from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.]
Shall we meet the Carnarvons?

George Edward Stanhope Molyneux Herbert --- the 5th Earl of Carnarvon --- came to be a significant person: "the last of the gentlemen archeologists." With his hired Egyptologist, Howard Carter, he discovered King Tut's Tomb. In his early years, though, he was less substantial. He hunted. He traveled on his yacht. And, as young men with titles often did in the 1800s, he ran up huge debts. The solution? Find a rich wife.

Almina, the 5th Countess of Carnarvon, in full regalia.
The Earl of Carnarvon with Lady Almina at Ascot, 1923.
Almina Victoria Marie Alexandra Wombwell was 19 when the earl met her. On her birth certificate, she was the daughter of a wealthy heiress and her husband. In reality, she was the illegitimate daughter of Alfred de Rothschild, of the banking family. She was pretty and charming. And, most to the point, rich.

Rothschild blessed the marriage in the most useful way. He agreed to clear George's debts so he could enter the marriage unencumbered by financial worries. And he promised Almina 12,000 pounds a year (about $6.5 million in today's money.)

Almina was an ideal choice for the role of 5th Countess of Carnarvon. And not just for her money. She was a brilliant hostess, and a generous one. When the Prince of Wales came to Highclere for a three day visit in the first year of her marriage, she spent 36,000 pounds for food, flowers, a shoot --- and a new bed for the prince.

Crazy? This was the late 1890s, the final flowering of the English aristocracy. The castle had more than 50 bedrooms; that required a vast house staff, as well as a second staff for the dairy, the mill, the farm, the forge and the endless shoots the men so loved.

Lady Carnarvon tracks the marriage and the life. Winters in Egypt. Entertaining at Highclere. The monumental discovery in Egypt. A near-fatal car crash. Almira's conversion of the castle to a hospital for wounded officers during the Great War. The Earl's early death.

Lady Carnarvon glosses over Almira's less successful second marriage. She does not tell us how she ran through her money. Or that, in 1969, she choked to death while eating stew.

Just as well. We like to believe that we were Pharaohs and Queens in our past lives, and when we watch shows like "Downton Abbey" we identify with the lead characters. I don't watch shows like this and read books like this as you may. I know who I am. The butler. And maybe not the head one at that.


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