A Conversation with the Countess:
Lady Fiona Carnarvon
As the eighth and current countess of Highclere Castle, the real-life setting for Masterpiece's Downton Abbey, Lady Fiona Carnarvon was inspired to share the true story of Highclere Castle's conversion to a hospital during WWI. From diaries, letters and photos (see a sample below) straight out of the Edwardian era, she produced Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey.
View the slideshow and read the full interview with Lady Carnarvon below in which Carnarvon reveals Highclere's parallels and differences with a certain fictional great house.
Select a topic from the list below to see Carnarvon's thoughts, or choose Show All to see the entire interview.
Let's start with Highclere Castle, the setting for the series Downton Abbey, and also a key character in your book. Can you tell us about it and its history?
The first stone for this particular version was laid in 1842. It was designed by Charles Barry, who was designing the Houses of Parliament at the same time. It is one of the most important buildings in England from that time. It actually was built over the top of a Georgian house, which was built on top of an Elizabethan house, which was built on top of some old bishop's palaces. The first building record I have here is 749 AD. So there's a long, long history of people enjoying living here.
Your book delves into the lives the fifth Earl of Carnarvon, George, and his wife Lady Almina. We meet them in the book at the point of their wedding. Could you introduce us to them?
George Edward Stanhope Molyneux Herbert, the 5th Earl of Carnarvon, married Almina Victoria Marie Alexandra Wombwell in 1895 (she was 19 years old). George actually owned about five estates around England and several houses in London, so he was very much a catch. He was pretty good at spending money and he decided he needed to marry an heiress. I think he wouldn't have married for money but he was not going to marry without money
He had met a petite, charming, vivacious girl called Almina, who was actually the illegitimate daughter of Alfred de Rothschild. The Rothschilds were a hugely successful family, as they are today. They were bankers near London, and London was the global banker of the world. Her dowry in 1895 was £500,000, which is about 30 million pounds today, plus annual income. And that was the basis of the marriage.
In the book, we get not only a sweeping perspective on Almina and George's life at Highclere, but also that of the downstairs life. Can you give us an overview of what it was like downstairs?
What comes across is first the size of the staff. In Downton Abbey, you're focusing on possibly 18 characters whom you're following and others come in and out. At Highclere Castle at the time, there were probably 60 members of staff living in and around the house itself. There were 14 footmen, and there were hall boys and steward room boys and then all the staff and the chefs.
And it was clearly a well-run house with good employers who people respected and loved. There were probably about 250 families living round and about working in forestry, the carpentry, the gardens, the house steward, the butler, the valet, and so on. There was a lovely phrase I found that an old nanny wrote saying how happy a place Highclere Castle was. "And nobody ever went to hell who lived at Highclere," she wrote.
There were relationships among the staff at various points as there are in Downton Abbey. What were the realities of those relationships?
Yes. Well, it was probably kinder at Highclere than it's portrayed in Downton Abbey. While everyone lived separately, there were caravans that used to take them off for the races and I have photographs of them going off for walks. I've since found out about places to go bowling. They also thoroughly enjoyed a dance after supper in the evening. So, obviously, relationships did start up.
At the heart of the book and so much at the heart of Lady Almina's life is something portrayed in the second season of Downton Abbey — the conversion of the home for the war effort. How did it come about and what was the real hospital like at Highclere?
That was the heart of the book for me, what I wanted to write about — incredibly moving. It was June, 1914. Everybody obviously felt they were moving into a war that couldn't be stopped. A top military official came and had lunch with Almina and her husband, and she said to him then, "I wish to turn the castle into a hospital during the event of war and I wish to be acknowledged that I can come under the southern command, the military command, and, therefore, patients from the front will be sent to me."
She employed 30 of the best and prettiest nurses, apparently, dressed in beautiful uniforms. Her idea was that when a soldier came back from war, he would be put into beautiful sheets with proper pillowcases, have an amazing view, and be made whole in body and soul. Naturally, her father was the source of all cash, and he gave her a lot of money to start it all up. The first patients started arriving back in September. It was a tremendous operation, and there were normally 20 to 30 patients in the bedrooms here in the castle.
You really do get a sense in the book of her devotion for it. This was her calling, fundamental to her life.
Yes, she rolled up her sleeves. You're completely right. And it became something to which she could give her money and energy. The rest of her life centered around nursing, healing and hospitals. She was a much more active figure in some ways than Cora is in Downton Abbey. At the hospital, there was no dillydallying about who was responsible and whatever. She went straight out. She made the best decisions and got on with it and helped everybody where she could. She drove some of them back to their families.
There's a fascinating subplot that runs through the book that involves a long history in the family with Egypt, and it really starts for George with a car accident.
George had so many car accidents, and one in particular nearly killed him because the car rolled upside down and he was trapped underneath. He was rushed to the hotel where his wife was staying, and then she, as usual, went out and got every single nurse and doctor from the surrounding area to help make her husband better. I think she then ended up becoming a nurse as well as a wife to her own husband.
He probably suffered from something like asthma and bronchial problems through many of the winters and often he'd go to bed for two weeks and not able to get up. That was why they went out to Egypt during the damp, winter months here in England.
George really developed an interest in excavation.
He did. He wasn't just interested in the social parties — he wanted to do something. He'd always been a traveler, a sailor, an adventurer. When he went to Egypt, he wanted something to do and he applied for a concession to excavate. He and Almina would sit on these piles of dust and sand surrounded by mosquito nets for days on end.
He was introduced to Howard Carter a couple of years later. Howard Carter became his man in Egypt and they became good friends.
By the time it was all over, he had spent probably what would have been the equivalent of $10 million over 14 years excavating, and it didn't always go so well. But the tide did turn, in fact, really at the point at which they were about to give up. What happened?
After World War I, this country was actually rather hugely in debt to America, and taxes had been 6% at the beginning of the war were 60% at the end. The budget was not balanced. I think it must sound familiar — there were strikes, there was a recession.
Lord Carnarvon was doing his best to try and make ends meet and he said to Howard Carter, "I can't go on — we're going to have to stop. We're going to have to call it quits." They had discovered quite a lot already, but this was the end of the line.
Howard Carter said, "Let's do one more season. I'll help you pay for it." And Carnarvon knew that Howard Carter didn't have that sort of money so he said, "Fine, let's do one more season." So that's what happened. Within two or three days, they had found the first steps that led into Tutankhamun's tomb.
Lord Carnarvon and Howard became recognized around the world for this discovery.
Well, the extraordinary thing is, I was trying to write about the discoveries of Tutankhamun, calling it the first global world media event. The Earl of Carnarvon was one of the most famous men in the world at the time. He was followed everywhere. But at that time, it was completely overwhelming, and very, very hard for the two men to deal with, and the press never left them alone.
In fact, Lord Carnarvon became ill, and, unfortunately, passed away when he was 57. There was a notion of the Curse of the Pharaohs, and parallels drawn between the deaths of King Tutankhamun and Lord Carnarvon.
It is extraordinary. I find a couple of things are quite spooky. The golden mask of Tutankhamun is of such beauty and quality and made of such equal weight of gold throughout, apart from on the left cheek, which is exactly where Carnarvon was bitten by the mosquito, and it turns out as well that malaria in mosquitoes probably had a major part in the death of Tutankhamun, which was, again, one of the major part[s] of the death of Lord Carnarvon. There are points that link them.
When the Earl of Carnarvon passed, Almina was 47. She was on her own for the first time. What must that have been like for her?
Devastating, I think. When you see the photographs in my book of her bent over up by his grave, at the top of Beacon Hill, it just makes you cry. It's such a moving photograph — this tiny, black huddled figure who spent hours beside her husband's grave because her life was going to completely, fundamentally change. She was going to move out of Highclere Castle and leave it to her son, because he had now married. She'd lost her father as well. She lost all the props of the people who had supported her and given her structure. I'm not even sure she knew how much she'd lost.
She did, however, open another hospital in 1927.
Yes. She named it Alfred House after her farther, Alfred de Rothschild. And it becomes a center of excellence and well known for superb food, very good wine, things like that. Almina never stopped and never changed, and she loved being involved in the operations with the doctors. I have so many letters from doctors, at the end of World War I, saying, "Dear Lady Carnarvon, you didn't have to give me that beaker or that watch or those evening studs for my shirt. I can't thank you. It was a pleasure to help work with you and operate on the patients." Towards the end of her life, I gather from my husband that taxi drivers still used to drive her around London for free for all she did for others during her life.
What do you think was Almina's greatest legacy and why does it matter today?
I think her legacy is quite complex. I mean, the first legacy is the fact that we are still here because of her, because of her money. That gave this castle legs to go beyond World War I, and gave it funds and money to keep going.
And I think also her legacy was to the families, to the men whose lives she saved. And some of those families have come back today, and they wouldn't be here if it wasn't for her.
There's also, a legacy to the world of Egyptology. Egyptologists today have said because of her generosity and continuing to fund Howard Carter, he was able to clear the tomb and document it. And he was probably the best man in the world for the job.
And perhaps above all, the attitude of going out and doing things for other people without thinking about whether you should or that attitude of kindness and contributing to other people's lives without worrying about. Perhaps we're too litigious in today's world or perhaps we think about things too hard or perhaps we don't put our hands out, like a good Samaritan, to help other people and talk to other people enough.