(Amazon link for book is here.)
The current Earl and Countess of Carnarvon (the 8th, if you like to keep track) currently preside over his ancestral home Highclere, which is the setting for the popular PBS miniseries Downton Abbey. The countess, an amateur historian, has written this book about Highclere during the first World War, which is the same time period covered by the tv show. The book examines this period through the eyes of the 5th countess, Almina, who married the earl in June 1895. Almina was an interesting character as she was the illegitimate daughter of a Rothschild, and so although she was a virtual “nobody”, her vast wealth made her a prospective bride for any son of a noble family wanting to maintain a steady flow of cash.
The story allows the readers a peak inside the stately house to see the inner workings of the estate (the servants, the extravagant house parties, Almina’s interior decorating), and the reader gets a clear picture of the opulence of Edwardian England, as well as Almina’s propensity for spending large quantities of her father’s money. Most of the book focuses on the chaos of the first World War, during which Almina successfully set up and maintained a hospital for wounded soldiers, first at Highclere and later in London. Meanwhile, the earl’s interest in antiquities and his failing health led him to visit Egypt many times and develop a close working partnership with the archeologist Howard Carter. After the war, the earl and Howard Carter instantly became famous when they discovered Tutankhamun’s tomb, the only Egyptian tomb before or since to be found mostly intact. The earl’s sudden death before the sarcophagus could be opened fueled rumors of a “mummy’s curse” on anyone connected to the opening of the tomb.
The 5th Earl and Countess of Carnarvon certainly put their mark on many things, most notably the maintenance and continuity of the family estate, Highclere. Thanks in no small part to Almina’s fortune, as well as her husband’s careful management, the estate remained largely intact despite the societal changes that came both during and after the war.
The book title is slightly misleading; if you think you are getting a Downton Abbey-esque look at the estate, you will be disappointed. Servants, their duties, and their participation in the war are all briefly mentioned, but, unlike the show, this book is not about the workings of the estate from the servants’ point of view. The estate is a character in the book, although a relatively minor one. Instead, this is Almina’s life story, from society bride, to Egyptian explorer, hospital matron and nurse, to widowhood. An excellent read if you wish to find out precisely what did happen at Highclere during the early 20th century. I recommend it to cure any Downton withdrawal until the next season airs.