I have been watching chambermaids in caps and aprons turn down the covers on four poster beds, and a pretty little lady’s maid arrange Lady Mary’s hair. I have eavesdropped on the Dowager Countess, and admired the butler’s determination to see that both family and staff do not let down the side. Whispers of scandal overheard on the back stairs, and in the drawing room make it certain I will tune in the following Sunday.
Life at Highclere Castle as portrayed in this book is even more fascinating. Almina Wombwell, was rumoured to be the illegitimate daughter of the fabulously wealthy Alfred de Rothschild. He settled an enormous dowry on her upon her marriage to the 5th Earl of Carnavon.
There were house parties, shooting weekends, (even the Prince of Wales was once guest of honor), balls and banquets as well as celebrations to which the whole village was invited. Electricity, central heating and indoor plumbing was installed.
There are photographs of Almina with feathered hats perched on her upswept coiffeur, photographs of the eighteen house servants; the men in brass – buttoned livery, the women in black with caps on their heads.
During World War I, Almina opened a private hospital in London and turned Highclere into a place where officers could recover in luxury and comfort. (One wonders what became of wounded enlisted men ?) She threw herself and her fortune into this work, and her influence helped turn nursing into a respectable career for women.
Her husband, the 5th Earl Carnovan, avoided the cold, damp English winters, instead spending time in Egypt. While there he became interested in archeology, and teamed up with Howard Carter. Their partnership eventually uncovered the tomb of Tutankhamun, one of the greatest discoveries of that ancient era.
Although this book has been written by the current Countess, the world she writes about, the world we see on television as Downton Abbey, seems as remote as the world of the Pharaoh’s.