Wednesday, March 6, 2013
Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey
With the unprecedented success of ITV's drama Downton Abbey, the great English country house Highclere Castle was put back on the map. Not that it was ever truly off the map to begin with, as the current Countess of Carnarvon chronicles in her excellent micro history Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey. First of all, the Carnarvons were one of England's foremost families among the landed gentry. They rubbed elbows with the royals quite regularly. And of course they would, being at the level of Earl.
As Lady Fiona Carnarvon writes her tale, one begins to realize that Highclere may well have toppled at the end of the 19th century. What changed is that the 5th Earl, George Edward Stanhope Molyneux Herbert, married Miss Almina Victoria Marie Alexandra Wombwell on June 26th, 1895. Lord George had been in debt for a long time, and Miss Almina had quite the fortune to her name, despite her not-so-delightful social standing. (She was the daughter of Alfred de Rothschild and Marie Wombwell; they were never married.)
Lady Almina Carnarvon was now the Countess, and she went to work on Highclere with a passion. Electricity was installed, as well as plumbed hot and cold water. She quickly became used to managing the household, and throwing extravagant parties was her forte. Each year she also accompanied her husband to Egypt, where he and his friend Howard Carter were embroiled in excavations.
When the Great War began, Almina realized that her passion and true forte lay in nursing. She set up Highclere as a small and incredibly competent hospital. With her father's never-ending money, she was able to afford the best nurses, doctors, and everything else she could have desired. Eventually, the hospital moved to London, but the care remained the same. Many, many soldiers who recovered at Almina's hospital wrote to express their thanks. And the families of those who didn't survive also expressed their gratitude. The hospital did close with the close of the war, though Almina was constantly looking for the opportunity to open one again. (She eventually did.)
And of course, the Carnarvons were a part of the greatest archaeological discovery to date: the finding of the sealed and untouched tomb of King Tutankhamen. The drama surrounding that event is severe. First, Lord Carnarvon was going to withdraw from the excavations that he and Carter had been undertaking for years. The reason was money. In 1922, he prepared to have a conversation that he wished he didn't have to have. Howard Carter was desperate (and at this point, who wouldn't be?), so he decided to pay for one last season of excavation with his own money. This would bankrupt him, as both Carnarvon and Carter knew, and Carnarvon finally agreed to finance one more season.
It was to be one of the best decisions ever, in my opinion. On the 6th of November in 1922, Carnarvon received a cable from his friend that said the following: "At last have made most wonderful discovery in the Valley. A magnificent tomb with seals intact. Recovered same for your arrival. Congratulations." Carter even recovered the entrance to the tomb, as stated in the cable, so that both men could experience it together.
The tomb they had been searching for had at last been found. Sadly, Lord Carnarvon didn't live to see the sarcophagus opened, dying of blood poisoning from a mosquito bite. The newspapers made much of this, calling it the "Curse of the Pharaohs" and so on. But the fact remained that he had been a part of such an amazing discovery, and that legacy still lives on.
I've only mentioned a few of the happenings chronicled in this lovely book. I don't want to rewrite everything; you just need to read it. I had to mention the discovery of Tutankhamen's tomb, though, because as a child I was obsessed with everything Egyptian, and that was one of my favorite stories. Yet I never remembered the name of Howard Carter's friend and companion who died. I doubt I'll forget it now. It's pretty awesome that he lived in the house that is the setting for one of my favorite television shows of all time. What a fantastic connection.
I hope to visit Highclere someday, and not only because it is the real-life Downton Abbey.
It is a legacy in its own right.