If you could see how many surfaces of my home my TBR pile has taken over, you would understand that finding “something to read” isn’t as simple as it might be in another home. With all the different genres waiting to be read, it’s sometimes surprising what your subconscious picks to read next. Last week was a case in point. I’m working my way through a non-fiction book on Anne Boleyn, which you’ll hear about soon enough, but I like to have 2 or 3 books going at once and definitely a few different “types” so that I can change my mood by changing my book. Running my fingers up and down a pile of books, quietly shivering in anticipation of being read, I found myself drawn to this one and I’m really glad that I didn’t put it back. It was fascinating!
Lady Fiona Carnarvon became the chatelaine of Highclere Castle – the setting of the hit series Downton Abbey – eight years ago. In that time she’s become fascinated by the rich history of Highclere, and by the extraordinary people who lived there over the centuries. One person particularly captured Fiona’s imagination – Lady Almina, the 5th Countess of Carnarvon. Almina was the illegitimate daughter of banking tycoon Alfred de Rothschild. She was his only daughter and he doted on her. She married the 5th Earl of Carnarvon, at 19, with an enormous dowry. At first, life at Highclere was a dizzying mix of sumptuous banquets for 500 and even the occasional royal visitor. Almina oversaw 80 members of staff – many of whom came from families who had worked at Highclere for generations. But when the First World War broke out, life at Highclere changed forever. History intervened and Almina and the staff of Highclere were thrown into one of the most turbulent times of the last century. Almina was forced to draw on her deepest reserves of courage in order to ensure her family, the staff and the castle survived. This is the remarkable story of a lost time. But Highclere remains and in this book, Fiona weaves Almina’s journey and those of her family into the heritage and history of one of England’s most exquisite Victorian castles.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book and while I confess that it was the tagline about Downton Abbey that initially caught my attention, it was the story itself which held it. As you can see, the story follows the life of the 5th Countess of Carnarvon, a woman who certainly had a less than auspicious start in life. Thanks to her dowry though and her own charming disposition, she was a highly desirable wife and although I was surprised by the reason behind her betrothal, I was extremely touched by the love that they shared throughout their marriage.
It was also fascinating to read more about how the large estates worked. Even having a fair idea of the system, it was really interesting to read such a personal and touching account of how the staff took pride in their positions and roles on the estate and how even their differing social standings didn’t stop them from being as much a part of the fabric of Highclere as the Earl and his family themselves.
The next interesting stage in her story was the start of World War I and how that allowed her to indulge her passion for nursing and her holistic approach to healthcare is truly inspiring. The idea of providing not only medical care for the body, but nourishment for the mind and peace for the soul was certainly revolutionary and it’s interesting that her hospital is credited so highly for their care of the wounded.
Of course, running as a thread through so much of this story is the fact that her husband was a huge fan of Egypt and was working every year on digs. Of course, he would go on to be part of the team that discovered the tomb of Tutenkhamun and his legacy is undeniable.
Of course I already knew about the Earl, but reading about his wife was really eye-opening. She was a strong woman in a time when the world was changing and in a way, she became a bridge between the past and the future.
This is not a work of non-fiction, nor is it strictly a work of fiction. Rather, it is a well-written and easily accessible tale of the history of a great house and a historic family. I would certainly recommend this book.
The Highclere Castle website is HERE