Once Downton Abbey became a household name, it was inevitable that curiosity about the history of Highclere Castle (where the series is filmed) and the family that has lived in it for more than 300 years would follow. And the current Countess of Carnarvon has obliged with biographies featuring two of her predecessors – Almina the 5th countess and Catherine the 6th countess. Both women could be described as chalk and cheese: with Almina forceful and gregarious while Catherine was more shy and retiring. One can see both biographies as a way to cash in on Downton Abbey’s success given that both women’s tenure as chatelaine of Highclere Castle coincided with the years in which the programme was set.
The connection with Downton Abbey is stronger with Almina’s story as there are some parallelisms between the real life Carnarvons and the fictional Granthams. The fifth earl of Carnarvon’s principal claim to fame today is assisting Howard Carter with his discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun in 1922. However this would not have been possible had he not married Almina Wombwell, officially the daughter of Fred and Marie Wombwell but in reality her natural father was Sir Alfred de Rothschild one of the wealthiest men in Britain. Through Sir Alfred’s generosity, Lord Carnarvon was enabled to carry on with his twin passions for archaeology and automobiles while Almina through marriage was able to rise above her uncertain social status – the classic case of money in exchange for title, status and in Almina’s case respectability. However the marriage seemed to be a love match: the 5th earl overrode all concerns about Almina’s parentage in order to marry her and their marriage to all intents and purposes was a happy one.
The 6th countess, born Catherine Wendell, was an American but not an heiress instead belonging to an old but upper middle class family from New York. In fact her nationality and crucially her lack of money was one reason why the 5th earl objected to her as a potential daughter-in-law but her marriage to the only son and heir to the Carnarvon earldom was championed by Almina. At first the marriage was happy but gradually cracks began to appear brought about by the 6th earl’s affairs and Catherine’s depression and drinking problem. The marriage ended in divorce and while the 6th earl remarried the Austrian ballet dancer and choreographer Tilly Losch, that marriage too was unhappy and resulted in another divorce.
Reading both biographies, their strengths lie in the way the current countess writes about the minutiae of life at Highclere during the tenures of both Almina and Catherine as countess and the comparison and contrast between the lifestyle of the fifth and sixth earls. The fifth earl and countess lived and entertained lavishly and opulently as befitting their status, all bolstered by Rothschild money, while the sixth earl and countess lived much more simply in contrast to their predecessors, thanks to the need to downsize after the First World War and pay off the fifth earl’s death duties.
Both biographies also shed light on aspects of life in a landed estate and the First World War that Downton Abbey has omitted – such as the elaborate servants’ hierarchy, the importance of the outdoor staff such as the gardeners, gamekeepers, work men and the estate managers and life between the wars when the Carnarvons saw the dispersal of the family’s collection of Old Master paintings, family jewels and vast acres of land. What is crucial as well is the author highlighting the role of Highclere Castle and the family during the First World War when even before war was officially declared, Almina had already offered the castle as a hospital as well as taking a course in nursing: which meant that by the middle of the war, she was able to assist during complicated and dangerous operations. Her husband on the other hand foresaw that aircraft would play a pivotal role should war break out and offered his expertise on aerial photography. Other members of the family also threw their weight behind the war effort, the most notable being the Hon Aubrey, the fifth earl’s younger brother, who was rejected due to being half blind but who decided to stow away with a cousin sent to the front. Instead of being sent home, his skill in foreign languages meant that he served as a liaison and translator for the generals and soldiers.
This showed how the Carnarvons were highly active in getting behind the war effort both on the battle field and the home front and this is a major omission in Downton Abbey. The unwillingness of the fictional Granthams to pull their weight and get behind the war effort flies in the face of historical reality when the aristocracy were offering their services with alacrity and performed their duties to the best of their ability.
However both biographies have some weaknesses. First of all is the title of the book; it’s important to get titles and forms of addresses right and to use both “Lady Almina” and “Lady Catherine” is incorrect since the use of “Lady” before a woman’s first name is only reserved for the daughters of dukes, marquesses and earls and both women were neither. Call me picky but if the author can’t get that minor detail right – and these books are written by a countess so some familiarity with titles is assumed – what else has she not bothered to get right?
Another issue I have is the use of The Real Downton Abbey as part of the title, I see this as a form of insecurity – are these women not interesting enough for their stories to stand on their own two feet without the handicap of a mediocre period drama that happens to be filmed at the house?
There is also little to no analysis of both Almina and Catherine’s personalities, lives and the world and times they lived in. Of both biographies, Almina’s is much more interesting owing to her character and sheer force of will but there is no real sense of who the real woman was good and bad, warts and all. It’s also the case with Catherine but I suspect that fundamentally there is really nothing about the woman which would merit a much more in depth biography.
Both biographies are adequate as light hearted introductory reads to British aristocratic life at the turn of and the early twentieth century but there are other publications that are superior to both most notably David Cannadine’s The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy (1990) which gives the reader a much more in-depth look at how the British aristocracy found themselves supplanted and reduced to irrelevancy by the twentieth century. As for Almina, I believe that in the fullness of time she deserves a better and more in depth biography that will supplant the current countess’s work.
Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey and Lady Catherine and the Real Downton Abbey by the Coutness of Carnarvon were published in 2011 and 2013 respectively by Hodder and Stoughton