I know I am not the only one obsessed with Downton Abbey, so I have no problem admitting it. Reading this book may have slightly intensified my obsession!
I remember being so excited when I saw Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey on a Downton Abbey display table at Barnes and Noble last year, but it took me a while to get started reading it. I firmly believe that you have to be in the mood to read different books; I hadn’t been in the mood for nonfiction. It wasn’t until I formed a mini book club with a few friends for the book Below Stairs (basically, this is a Downton-based club!) that I got to reading it, and I will definitely be recommending it for my book club’s next read!
Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey chronicles the life of Almina Wombwell once she becomes the 5th Countess of Carvaron in 1895 and begins her life at Highclere Castle, the location where Downton Abbey is filmed. Though her parentage was questionable, Almina came with quite a large dowry, which was necessary to keep Highclere running (this is somewhat similar to Cora in the show). As she grows into her position as Countess, Almina flourishes; she hosts grand parties, and spares no expense. Luckily, her father Alfred de Rothschild is more than generous with his money, and so Almina has no reason to worry about expenses.
When her husband the Earl is involved in a horrible car crash, Almina is dedicated to nursing him back to health, and this is where she finds her calling. When World War I breaks out in Europe, Almina immediately knows that she wants to turn Highclere into a hospital for wounded soldiers. She contacts all the necessary people to gain approval, and with yet another contribution from her father, is able to furnish and staff the hospital with all the best equipment, doctors, and nurses handpicked by Almina herself. Almina’s philosophy in running the hospital is simple. She believes that each soldier requires and deserves the very best care. Every patient will be roomed in one of the castle’s many bedrooms and enjoy the luxuries that come with being a house guest – the finest sheets, pajamas, and food. Nurses are to talk to the soldiers and get to know them as well as looking after their wounds; it is necessary to provide the emotional care on top of physical healing. Almina personally looks after many of the soldiers herself and takes the time to contact the families of each patient that comes in to the hospital, inviting them to visit. Her hard work and commitment to such a personal level of care proved to be just what the patients needed time and time again, and many letters were sent to Almina throughout the war to describe how thankful many of them felt for her kindness and generosity.
There were so many things that I absolutely loved about this book. For starters, this felt like a great companion to Downton Abbey. The fact that it focuses on the family (and the servants!) in Highclere at the time that Downton takes place, makes it that much easier to appreciate the historical accuracy of the show. Not only does the book highlight the history of the castle, but it helps give a clearer understanding of World War I for those who may not be quite as familiar with it. I remembered the very basics from high school history class, and while history was always my favorite subject, World War II was my favorite topic. I never truly understood how horrifying World War I was, and how much it changed not only the way wars are fought, but also the history of the world. There are repercussions we still see today, and I doubt I would have ever realized this had it not been explained in Lady Almina. Fiona, Countess of Carnarvon, did an unbelievably wonderful job researching and writing this book. Every aspect was explained so thoroughly, with the greatest attention to detail. Her style of writing was perfect; I often felt as though I were having a conversation with the Countess, listening to her tell me the story of Almina while I sipped a cup of tea (at home, though; not at Highclere )!
Anyone who is a fan of Downton would be doing themselves a favor to give this book a try. I truly feel like it will give you an even greater appreciation for the show, but more importantly, an even greater appreciation for Highclere itself, which I know was the Countess’s reason for writing it. Her love for the castle and its history is so very evident, and it’s so very nice to see.