I don’t remember where I first heard of this book, but it drew my attention because I’m fascinated by castles and the history behind them. Then, on our local PBS station, there was an advertisement for a special starring the current residents of Highclere, George Herbert, the 8th Earl of Carnarvon, and his wife, Lady Fiona Carnarvon. Their sharing of Highclere and some comments on its use for the PBS series were quite interesting. And made me want to know more.
I was fascinated from the start with Lady Fiona’s writing style. Filled with history, family lineage, and tales of war and strife, the book is genuinely a comfortable read. In fact, I learned a bit more in this book about the history of World War I than I’ve found in many history books.
Although it could have been tempting to cast the Carnarvon family members in only the best light, Lady Fiona has been faithful to the reader by sharing both the good and bad in the family members’ character as well as members of the castle’s staff.
It was pleasing to find that the writer didn’t dwell on the involvement of Highclere Castle in the Downton series. In fact, the references were so minute that I only recall mention of Downton in the title.
Lady Fiona begins her story with telling us how Lady Almina became Lady of the castle. A child born to Alfred de Rothschild and Marie Wombwell, a widow who had been a longstanding friend of Sir Alfred. Sir Alfred doted on Almina and provided handsomely for both mother and daughter. In fact so much so, that he settled a large sum of money on Almina making her a serious contender in the marriage market. And in June of 1895, Almina became Lady Almina Carnarvon, wife of the 5th Earl of Carnarvon, George Edward Stanhope Molyneux Herbert.
For years, Lady Almina enjoyed the role of hostess, mother, and wife to the Earl. Society was important to Highclere and the Carnarvon’s and Lady Almina’s money essential the survival of the Carnarvon estate. However, Lady Almina nursed her husband who suffered various injuries and illnesses due to his travels abroad and his tendency to take risks in many ways.
To this reader, the most intriguing part of the book details the Carnarvons’ search for Egyption artifacts and ultimately ending in the discovery of King Tut’s tomb. This search took place over a period of years and during the Great War. Only during the time that Lady Almina was establishing and operating two hospitals for wounded soldiers and officers did she not travel with Lord Carnarvon.
And here the book rivals its TV competition. On Downton Abbey, Lady Grantham is portrayed in a similar role converting Downton to a hospital and involving herself in the care of the wounded. However, Lady Almina’s passion for this service far exceeds what is seen in Lady Grantham.
Together with greater detail given to the Great War and Lady Almina’s nursing services, we receive a look at England’s history during this time period that, for me, was extraordinarily informative. Recalling that I was a very bored history student in high school and college, I am amazed at how Lady Fiona’s writing allowed me an education in the midst of this fascinating book.
STARS AWARDED: 5