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Posts Tagged ‘To Marry an English Lord’

Last week I read Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey by Lady Fiona Carnarvon, who lives with her husband, the 8th Earl of Carnarvon at Highclere Castle, where Downton is filmed. The book is mainly about Almina Wombwell, the heiress who married the 5th Earl of Carnarvon, helping to cancel his debts and put the castle on firm financial ground for future generations, much as Cora, the heiress on Downton, does for Lord Grantham.

Almina wasn’t American but was as wealthy, perhaps wealthier, than the women I read about in To Marry an English Lord. As a society outsider because her uncertain paternity – she was allegedly the illegitimate daughter of Alfred de Rothschild, and her mother, Marie Wombwell was married to a ne’er do well – Almina craved the respectability and social entree a titled marriage would afford her. And her Earl wanted cash, not only to preserve Highclere, but also to fund his expeditions with Howard Carter to Egypt.

Yes that Howard Carter. The 5th Earl of Carnarvon, Almina’s husband, was with Carter when he opened Tutankhamen’s tomb, and had bankrolled Carter’s archaeological work for many years. Although Almina wasn’t there, she rushed to her husband’s side when he fell ill and died shortly after the unsealing of the tomb in 1923, and the current Lady Carnarvon notes in interviews that the entire episode was one of the first international media events. It’s one of the more fanous episodes in Almina’s glamorous life. Another is her hosting the Prince of Wales at Highclere when she was a nineteen year old bride in 1895. She spent over half a million dollars in today’s money on his three day stay, even ordering a custom bed and redecorating a bedroom for the future king.

The sections about the lavish entertaining, along with details about how Highclere was run and what life “downstairs” was like, were interesting for me as a Downton fan. Lady Fiona Carnarvon wrote this biography to help promote the show (which has been a financial boon to the estate), and to highlight the true story of the castle’s conversion to a hospital during World War I. Almina was a strong advocate for quality nursing and like many women in England relished her war work as a way to make a real difference at a time when the country was in a constant state of loss and grief.

I really enjoyed the sections of this book that focus on the war and the relief work. The stories of Almina’s sparing no expense to provide excellent hospital and convalescent care, and of the Dowager Countess of Carnarvon in Alexandria, Egypt (she followed her younger son, Aubrey, who did intelligence and translation work for the British in the Middle East) are tremendous. The Dowager Countess felt the hospital ships were not being managed efficiently, and she did such a good job in reorganizing things that she became harbormaster. That story is so good I wondered why Julian Fellowes didn’t use it — wouldn’t you like to see Maggie Smith commandeering a pilot’s boat?

As a longtime fan of Word War I poetry and Vera Brittain‘s absolutely devastating diaries and memoirs, I find World War I just staggering, and for that, the biography of Almina and Highclere’s role as a war hospital are very interesting reading. The parts about Lord Carnarvon’s Egyptian expeditions and other well known people and historical events are also interesting, and the history of the house itself is wonderful. If you like Downton Abbey, you should enjoy this book as well. There has been some criticism that the book overlooks or whitewashes less desirable aspects of the family’s history, but even if that’s the case, this side of the story makes a good read. It’s not bad writing, and if you understand the perspective of the author, you take with a grain of salt her effusive praise of her predecessor. Besides, Almina was quite a woman. She makes Cora seem pretty wishy washy by comparison, honestly.

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Gail MacColl and Carol McD. Wallace must be fans of Downton Abbey, because their book, To Marry an English Lord: Tales of Wealth and Marriage, Sex and Snobbery has been on all kinds of lists in the press and online about what to read between Downton seasons. The publicity even led to a new edition released last spring which quotes Downton creator Julian Fellowes on the cover.

The Downton connection, to be honest, is why I requested this book on inter-library loan. I’m a Downton Abbey fan, even this year when it’s fashionable to disdain it for being too soap-opera-ish. I love just about anything on Masterpiece Classic, or what my family calls “bonnet shows.” I’m a costume drama nut — in fact, after I took my children to see Harry Potter: the Exhibition and then a couple of years later saw some shows on Broadway I realized what I really am is a costumes, sets, and props nut. Can you imagine how much fun it is to take a script and then design the way it’s going to look on the stage or screen? If I ever decide to start a new career  . . . .

But I digress. To Marry an English Lord is about the period from the late 1800’s through the end of King Edward VII’s brief reign in 1910 when over one hundred American heiresses married into the English aristocracy. Like Lord & Lady Grantham on Downton Abbey, each side got what it wanted: titles for the women (and increased social prestige for their American families) and money for the gentlemen’s shabby or debt-burdened estates. MacColl and Wallace do a great job of telling this story and filling it with interesting historical details about the period on both sides of the Atlantic.

I found the sidebars and sudden interjections of two-page-spread asides a little distracting, though informative. In fact I wondered if the writing was somewhat diminished by the busyness of the design. I love the research and the plethora of details the authors shared, and the way they brought certain characters to life. Alva Vanderbilt for example — I had to admire her chutzpah after reading what MacColl and Wallace had to say about her. The book is richly illustrated, so you can see Alva and many of the other people the authors are describing as well as their dresses, houses, jewels, children and more. I can see what attracted Fellowes, because it’s perfect for a writer who wants to get the details right for a story.

One of the things I found most interesting was the way American women shook up English society a bit, not only with their lavish spending, their style and penchant for entertaining, but also with their modern views. The authors point out that the heiresses weren’t just rich ladies with expensive tastes who shopped and threw extravagant parties. They changed British views about inheritance, control over money, and divorce. They influenced or got involved personally in politics. And they did a lot of good in their adopted country, raising money for various causes as well as preserving a number of great homes.

I was also very intrigued by the way Edward, as Prince of Wales and later as King, had so much to do with the American invasion. This was a part of the story I didn’t know, that he loved America and Americans, especially women. I had no idea that until just before his reign, the U.S. only had a consulate, not a full embassy (his strong personal ties to influential Americans may have been a factor in the upgrade). Nor did I know that he befriended so many of the heiresses, sometimes endorsed various matches and was godfather to many Anglo-American babies.

A very interesting, edifying and entertaining read.

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