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Posts Tagged ‘Vera Brittain’

Longtime bookconscious readers know my grandmother was a big influence in my life. She was a voracious reader, with very strong preferences and opinions about what she read. She was a big fan of the famous Strunk and White edict: “Omit needless words,” and was sure authors of long books had been paid by the word. Some of her highest praise for anything she enjoyed reading: “There was not one extra word. Every one belonged.”

She introduced me to many wonderful books, from A.A. Milne‘s poetry (she could recite “Disobedience,” as well as many other poems for children and adults, into her 90’s), to Vera Brittain‘s Chronicles of Youth and favorite biographies of political leaders (in particular John Adams and Winston Churchill) or heroic women (notably the only book that has ever made me absolutely sob, Eleni by Nicholas Gage). When my children were small and we moved to New England she sent me Shirley Jackson‘s Life Among the Savages.

Grandmother always had a book to recommend. And one piece of her advice I’ve followed more and more as I’ve entered middle age is that when life hands you lemons, you should slice them up to put in your tea and curl up with a good mystery or spy novel. She loved Agatha Christie, believed the Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy books by John Le Carre are the epitome of good writing, and introduced me to one of our favorite heroines of all time, Dorothy Gilman‘s Mrs. Pollifax. I told her about Jasper Fforde‘s wonderful Thursday Next; she didn’t quite embrace Thursday’s snarkiness or odd time-warped world, but she tried it.

I think she would have loved Maisie Dobbs, who is a strong, independent woman whose fictional life experiences mirror some of Vera Brittain’s. I’m not sure if she ever tried Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series. I’m turning to both these days. Government shutdowns, overheated and misleading political rhetoric, shootings, and all kinds of other things I don’t understand have me turning to mysteries, even craving them.

Of course there is order to a mystery, which is comforting. There’s a definite sense of right and wrong, even when there are gray areas. There’s a clear villain most of the time, or at least a perpetrator whose circumstances or nature generally explain his or her crimes. There are clues that lead detective and reader alike to a conclusion, and there are mostly clean resolutions, where victims may have suffered but justice is served and all’s right again with the world. A series is also very comforting because the characters’ actions may be fresh but they are still familiar.

I have only two books left in the Maisie Dobbs series. If you love a gentle mystery author who writes without graphic violence nor ripped-from-the-headlines shock value and favors strong female characters, leave a comment so I’ll know what to read next.

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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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