Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Lady Almina

Quite some time ago, I read a list someone had written of books that were about or related to Downton Abbey. I enjoy the TV show a ton, and I really like to read, so a book about Downton Abbey seemed like a great match for me! I promptly uploaded the names of most of these volumes into Goodreads and put them on my "Want to Read" shelf. (As an aside: I previously would have simply requested the book from the library right away, which was an okay solution. I never forgot about books I wanted to read, but there was stress when my requested books came in and I didn't really have time to read them.) And as soon as the books were on the Goodreads shelf, I basically forgot about them.

Fast forward to a shopping adventure a couple of weeks ago that included a stop at Half Price Books. What do I happen upon but one of the books from the list, which has a name that wouldn't let me forget that I wanted to read it and why: Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey.

I snapped this book up in a heartbeat and put it on the top of the stack at home. I started it just as soon as I could and tore through it. I really enjoyed this book and, if you're a fan of Downton Abbey, I'd highly recommend it!

This book focuses on the life of the real person who inspired Cora, the Countess of Grantham, in the TV show. Like Cora, the real Almina was an heiress whose money helped make the estate solvent at a time of financial turmoil. Though her family was quite wealthy, she was a bit of an "outsider" for many different reasons, so there was a bit of ongoing tension between the world where she had been raised and the world she occupied as the lady-in-charge at the castle. I found the story of her childhood and her passage into the noble family to be the most interesting part of the book. It reminded me of the intrigue that accompanied the discovery that Cousin Matthew was going to be the heir of Downton Abbey and the challenges encountered on both sides as he became integrated into his new surroundings.

The body of the book is really about World War I and Almina's decision to open a hospital which spent quite a bit of time operating out of Highclere Castle - the place she lived and where Downton Abbey is actually filmed. I was really intrigued by the discussion of how it was to make a private home into a hospital, a subject that is discussed in much more detail in the book than in the TV show. However, there was a LOT of detail regarding the war that I ultimately just didn't find that interesting. The author, who is currently the Countess of Carnarvon and who lives at Highclere Castle herself, goes into a lot of detail about this person and that person dying in such-and-such a battle. I struggled to keep track of these soldiers. While they were certainly known to Lady Almina, they weren't known to me.

After the war ended, the book then goes into great detail about what is actually, apparently, the family's greatest legacy: the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamen in Egypt! I'm not very knowledgeable regarding Egyptian history, or archaeology, so I did not see this one coming. I guess it makes sense that the very wealthy were the ones who purchased the rights and financed the work of doing the excavations. This book doesn't go into a ton of detail about it, but it is an interesting way to wrap up the story. While reading this book, I certainly saw a different face to the family at Downton that I've come to know and love. Most significantly, I began to realize just how closely their fiction mimics fact. If you enjoy Downton Abbey, read this!

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