Actually this post is a twofer, because I also just read Walter Lord’s A Night to Remember. Now why do you suppose I would read these two volumes back to back?
I’ll give you a minute.
Maybe if I add a photo of my passport?
Yes! You got it! I’m heading to Highclere! Not only that — I’m going on a tour billed as “At Home with the Edwardians: A Tour of Downton Abbey Film Locations.” And I am the “Study Leader.” So I’m studying — hence Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey.
I must admit I had avoided Lady Almina, largely out of envy, because this book outsells my own To Marry an English Lord and because its author, the Countess, gets to actually live at Highclere. But it was an entertaining and informative read. Almina Wombwell was the illegitimate daughter of Alfred de Rothschild. In a very sophisticated arrangement, her parents stayed together and Rothschild bankrolled Almina’s dowry as well as numerous subsequent expenses. The two appear to have been very happy together, which creates a challenge for the author. Much of the early part of the book is devoted to the running of Highclere, both upstairs and down; Carnarvon clearly had access to excellent records but even anecdotes about the castle’s inhabitants don’t quite add up to a story. Far more interesting was Almina’s devotion to medical care during World War I — she set up a rehabilitation unit at Highclere and later in London. And there’s fascinating material about her husband the Earl of Carnarvon’s Egyptian obsession. He bankrolled Howard Carter’s excavations in the Valley of the Kings, and the two opened King Tut’s tomb together. Almina was there. It’s quite a spell-binding moment, and Carnarvon does a great job with the historical context and the competing political agendas.
As for A Night to Remember, surely you remember those first moments of Season 1, Episode 1, when Lord Grantham takes up his freshly-ironed newspaper and reads that the Titanic has sunk? Evidently Walter Lord’s book about that event is still authoritative. He interviewed scores of survivors and put together a deceptively simple moment-by-moment narrative that makes for amazingly suspenseful reading, considering that we all know more or less what happened. It’s the fascination of the horror movie, when you see the monster creeping up on the campfire where all those innocents are cluelessly toasting marshmallows. Lord speculates that the Titanic tragedy still exerts fascination as a kind of precursor to the loss of innocence brought about by World War I. He doesn’t press the point, but the sinking of the unsinkable ship does make for an excellent metaphor. The assurance of the 19th century gives way to the jittery insecurity of the 20th — and all because we didn’t know what we didn’t know.