“Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey” by the Countess of Carnarvon

The phenomenon of ‘Downton Abbey’ has managed to swoop 16 Emmy nominations for 2012. Despite bitter criticism for what seemed a “strangely paced” and “awkward plot” of the Second season (or so seems to be the general atmosphere in the media and among the critics. I personally loved the second season as much as the first one, but then, I’m just an uninformed and naive viewer, what would I know), unfitting the primary oohs and aahs created by the first season, 16 nominations is still quite a remarkable number for a non-American drama merely in its second season.

As an avid fan of British period dramas and basically anything that has good-looking actors, a sturdy plot and romance in the air, I was taken away by Downton Abbey myself. True, I admit, it does not take much for me to become a fan of a TV show, I can be easily amazed. Nevertheless, Downton Abbey really has everything for a good show and is fit to please any average viewer, I think. As I said, good looking actors and actresses, a strong plot with enough suspense, and romance among various characters (although I hated the *spoiler alert* short, clumsy and light-headed distraction experienced by the Earl of Grantham). Above all, a lengthy and tiresome yet addictive story line that only the British can pull off.

Based on such admiration and devotion, needless to say, the book “Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey” was my first choice when I finally finished the fifth book of “A Song of Fire and Ice” (which by the way still has one more on its way *sigh*).

The simple word ‘Real’ detains much power here. Which Downton Abbey fan wouldn’t want to know the ‘real’ story behind the beloved castle and its ensemble up and down the stairs? The appearance of some of the characters’ names (Bates and Crawley), the slight hints telling us where Julian Fellowes might have gotten his ideas from (Mr. Bates in real life was injured by the war -although not the same war- and was left disabled for life, the butler in the house served for more than 40 years, the fortune brought by Lady Almina provided a solution to the financial problems encountered by Lord Carnarvon, much like Lady Cora’s saved the Earl’s), all of these little yet juicy details would satisfy any fan of the series.

The relevance to the fictional Downton Abbey constitutes only a small portion of the whole book however, but not to the disappointment of readers who are willing to find delight in the voyage back to when ‘tradition’ was invented and flourished. The details in the garments, the weekend parties, the going back and forth between the house in London and the ‘castle’ in the countryside, the amazing and expansive network of the ‘nobility’ and above all, the maintenance of ‘status’ and of tradition take the readers back in time and space, offering them the privilege of a vicarious experience. One does not need to be British, rich or living in early 20th century to enjoy these peculiarities.

After the first infatuation however, the description of Lady Almina, her origins, her life and her personality, do have the bizarre influence of making the reader (or at least one as myself) feel slightly uncomfortable.

True, Lady Almina is the embodiment of the concept ‘Noblesse Oblige’. True, reaching and being accepted at a high status in the British society was her primordial dream, one that she graciously and ostentatiously accomplished. True, she did not see her status as something that would keep her away from others, but rather as a privileged mean to help others, especially those ‘inferior’ (in the most innocent meaning possible) to her (which basically included everyone around her). I do not want to discredit the ‘good deeds’ she fulfilled, nor her generosity.

Nevertheless, I did get the strong impression that to her, ‘money’ was above all the key to everything she did, the tool that would take her anywhere she wanted to go (not simply in terms of actual location, but also in terms of her personal goals) and the only and final thing she went to for any ‘project’ of hers. The unimaginable and seemingly unlimited fortune her father possessed, and which he willingly gave her, like a good father would to any beloved child, was ‘the’ thing that allowed her to be so ‘great’. What is wrong with that, may some ask. I can’t pinpoint exactly what it is that bothers me. Maybe, deep down, I’m just jealous I don’t have and never will have that kind of fortune. Still, I want to believe it’s something deeper and perhaps fundamentally more righteous than that. Would I be a joke if I simply said ‘It doesn’t feel right’? Because, the more I try to think of a plausible and logical answer, the more I’m tempted to give that simple and naive answer. It doesn’t feel right that she saw everything and everyone as objects her generous -and rich- helping hand could just scoop from their lowest state. It doesn’t feel right that money should be the solution to everything. The term itself, ‘Noblesse Oblige’ starts feeling ‘not right’ at all, when we realize that beneath that concept lies the clear distinction between a higher and lower class. The former being the altruistic savior and the latter the destitute victim.

She’s not to blame of course, I’m sure that all those people she helped are, for the right reason, grateful. I’m sure there were many people in the nobility not half as fair and goodhearted as her who made the life of the ‘downstairs’ people hell. Lady Almina is after all, one person in the bigger realm of what constitutes a society, and her only ‘sin’ would be that she tried to play the role she was given well. She was driven by the innate propensity her status bestowed upon her.

And so was the current Countess of Carnarvon when writing this book.

All in all, it is a good read, as I often like to say for many books that lack that special something to allow me to say they’re bloody fantastic. As a fan of Downton Abbey, as an enthusiast of Victorian Britain, and as an interested reader, the book definitely provides ample information and stories about the ‘real lady that used to live in the real Downton Abbey’. As for the odd aftertaste it leaves you, I guess that’s just me.

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