Nash Rambler Reviews The Life and Secrets of Almina Carnarvon
The Life And Secrets Of Almina Carnarvon’ is a delicious journey through a world that is as alien to us today, as many of the unexplored planets of our solar system. Vast tracts of Almina’s story are almost too incredible to believe, creating a life that could only have been lived by the likes of her! Verdant in some areas, and desolate in others, the landscape of her existence never defaulted to half-measures, but was propelled forward, at the reckless pace of full speed ahead, often at the price of reputation and social standing! Lady Carnarvon led a life that contained a caustic mixture of adultery, alcoholism, abortion, money-laundering, tax fraud and disinheritance as she held sway as chatelaine of Highclere Castle, from 1895 to 1923. Aristocratic chutzpah gone awry, but in such an enticing way, that it would have been impossible not to like her, even just a little!
Personally, I found Almina a delight and would have found no end of enjoyment in having her round for a weekly Sunday roast, or a knees up at the local, just to listen and hang on every word of her alluring stories! Sadly, forty-two years after her passing this is altogether an impossibility.
However, due to the diligence and care of William Cross, Almina boldly lives once again within the pages of his masterfully crafted aristo-bio! Essentially Cross’ attempt, in my esoteric opinion, is a book that stands alone as a candid and honest appraisal of this dynamic doyenne!
Accordingly, and as I mentioned in my previous remarks from earlier in the year, ‘The Life And Secrets Of Almina Carnarvon’ is unequivocally the definitive work documenting Almina’s life. It is with an esoteric ease of mind that I can make such a statement, such is the depth and extent of Cross’ research, all painstakingly validated in thirty some odd pages, containing over 844 endnotes. As such, I am quite certain that it will retain this accolade in perpetuity, entirely in recognition of his dedicated efforts to a truthful approach on a subject that has remained in the shadows far too long.
From the onset of his recounting of Almina’s life, Cross challenges a number of established views of Almina, juxtaposed with regard to the accepted stance of her descendants, the Herbert family. Nowhere is that more apparent, than in his remarks on the parentage of several members of the noble clan, and which in no small part may be most relevant and which might explain the apparent reluctance of the Herbert family to allow the author access to the Highclere archives, an obstacle that Cross triumphs quite neatly.
History tells us that at her birth the future Lady Carnarvon was registered as Almina Victoria Maria Alexandra Wombwell, officially daughter of Frederick Charles Wombwell and his wife Marie, neé Boyer. Almina's mother, intriguingly, was only allowed to visit Highclere privately after her daughter’s marriage; and whilst in London, fearing the mockery of their friends, Carnarvon's family cut Marie dead.
In an effort to shift fact from fiction; the driver that motivates us throughout the book, Cross claims that although the Highclere guidebooks refer to Frederick as Captain, he maintains that this is inaccurate, since in reality Wombwell never rose to this rank. In point of fact, Cross portrays Wombwell as a gentleman who subscribed to the mindset of the wastrel or dilettante, and who sprang from a family with very modest claims to nobility, Frederick was the son of the third baronet of a family ennobled in 1778. That being said, it is not to far a stretch to understand why the Herberts prefer to portray Almina as the illegitimate daughter of the esoteric luminary and fabulously wealthy financier, Alfred de Rothschild. To be fair, the aureate Rothschild is generally credited with having been Almina’s biological father, and not just a story fostered by the Herberts alone. For, I too was familiar with this scenario and found it far more interesting than her descent from the ‘tepid’ genes of the Wombwells, after all, Almina was too rare a bird to be the progeny of such a lack luster sire as Frederick Wombell, Captain or otherwise.
Not surprisingly, Cross takes issue with the identification of Rothschild as her biological father period. To that effect, he makes strong concise points and plausible arguments that Rothschild, an inveterate homosexual was in all likelihood not the real father of Almina. In light of Alfred’s closeness to Almina throughout her life, Cross argues that allowing a popular impression that Almina was his daughter suited Rothschild in keeping his sexual orientation secret, a lifestyle that was essentially illegal at the time and discovery could have meant being ostracized from society and or even prison. The Rothschild Archive describes Alfred as a “flamboyant dandy” and acknowledges that Niall Ferguson’s history of the Rothschilds’ presents Alfred de Rothschild as someone who 'lived the life of a fin de siècle aesthete, at once effete and faintly risqué’ but declines to identify him outright as homosexual. Giving thought to the mores of the time and since homosexuality was illegal and unacceptable conduct for an Edwardian gentleman, it was doubly so for a scion of a leading Jewish family. Therefore it is not too surprising that official biographies do not portray Rothschild as homosexual. The fact remains that Alfred lived into his seventies but remained unmarried and with the possible exception of Almina Wombwell, childless. Upon his death and in spite of never acknowledging his paternity of her, it was to Almina that he left his entire fortune.
On the surface this is indeed plausible enough evidence that he was indeed of the ‘Greek love’ caste, or at the very least bisexual. No doubt any future biographers who tackle Alfred Rothschild as a subject will explore this possibility in somewhat greater detail to find what facts remain, if any on this aspect of his life. In the interim, there seems good reason to accept Cross’ view that Almina may not have been Rothschild’s illegitimate daughter, a situation, like several in the Herbert family tree that could only be accurately resolved by DNA testing. There in lies the challenge.
As any esoteric worth their salt knows, in the 1890s, marrying socially ambitious heiresses was almost de rigueur for those feckless English lords whose taste for chorus girls, gambling, yachts and horses had exhausted the centuries old family capital. In theory, these resourceful gentlemen offered their titles to the eager daughters of American industrialists to boost the noble coffers. George Edward Stanhope Molyneux Herbert, 5th Earl of Carnarvon, having rattled his way into £150,000 of debts, nothing remarkable back then for a man of his class, decided to look closer to home to find the solution to his lack of income.
Keen to cement a social position that was still slightly tricky for a Jewish banker, Rothschild announced that his fortune would be bestowed upon Almina. Enter stage right, Lord Carnarvon, proprietor, despite that vexing lack of ready cash, of four large estates, at least 6,000 acres, and Highclere Castle, the grand Victorian monster of a mansion; the Anglo-Welsh Herbert family’s country house in the Jacobean style, with park designed by Capability Brown. The 1,000 acre estate is in the English county of Hampshire, south of the border with Berkshire, and south of Newbury.
Highclere, at the time that the tiny Almina became its mistress in 1895, was beginning to topple under the enormous weight of its upkeep. Rothschild's vast resources solved that little problem. Having agreed to pay off ‘Porchy’ Carnarvon's debts, while providing the lucky chap with a lavish annual allowance, Rothschild opened his pockets for his money loving purported daughter. Almina, for example, thought as little of requesting the equivalent in today's money of £360,000, the cost for three days of country-house hospitality, as the indulgent Rothschild thought of signing such a trifling cheque.
As one reads further, it becomes prudent to consider the very real possibility that DNA tests on a generations old family assumption, seems doubtful, a fact that Cross is in agreement with. Even in the early 21st century, it is unlikely that the Rothschild family would wish to ‘out’ Alfred and on that score, there are even fewer reasons for the Herberts to consider a DNA test because Cross also tempts us with the savory possibility that the Fifth Earl of Carnarvon was not in fact the father of the Sixth Earl. Apparently, and it is only subtly hinted at with the slightest nuance, he led me to believe the possible progenitor of the subsequent Earls of Carnarvon was none other than Victorian ‘bad boy’ Prince Victor Duleep Singh, who had been Carnarvon’s best man at his marriage to Almina, and was the Eton-educated son of the erstwhile, Maharaja of Lahore.
In comparison, and although the evidence for Almina’s parentage is well-argued, Cross plays his cards close to his chest and provides relatively scant evidence to support his theory that the Sixth Earl was illegitimate, and indeed has not directly identified a plausible candidate as an alternative father. In my opinion, this is where the beauty and mastery of his skill as a biography makes Cross the perfect ‘story-teller’ in recounting the lives of Almina and the Herberts. Hemmed in by privacy laws and the very real possibility of causing rancor with the Carnarvon family, he leads us as far as he can within the confines that are imposed upon his views. You cannot step away from this book without the very real duality of one having so many questions answered and so many new ones to address. It does what a book is supposed to do; it is informative and makes us want to know more.
Cross, is tempted to suggest that Almina and her husband were not sexually intimate until much later, and indeed to that point, he believes the marriage had not been consummated, and that a child, even if illegitimate, suited the couple’s interests at the time. ‘Her husband was slow to do his duty as a husband,’ explains Cross, ‘the Earl was not impotent, but he didn’t find Almina attractive, a similar reaction was garnered from Almina, since she felt a similar revulsion. That fact remained that the couple needed to beget an heir. Which bears the question, was Almina seduced by Prince Victor, or set up by her husband?
To a literal thinker like myself, this to a degree is a somewhat less than satisfactory argument, primarily due to the thought that while Almina may not have found Carnarvon physically attractive, she is often referred to as the ‘Pocket Venus’ of Highclere and it seems unlikely that Carnarvon, who unlike Rothschild was definitely a man with an eye for pretty ladies, was not attracted to Almina. In English aristocratic society, a wife was expected to do her duty, with that being said, it seems unlikely she would have risked annulment and possible disinheritance on grounds of non-consummation.
Moreover, Cross later does an about face and changes his opinion of the future additions to the Carnarvon nursery, and concedes the legitimacy of the couple’s second child, Lady Evelyn. The reader learns from Cross that the Sixth Earl was not close to his father, a fact which is well supported in other literature. On the other hand, and in marked contrast Lady Evelyn was her father’s favorite and companion, and was with him at the opening of Tutankhamun’s tomb in the Valley of the Kings. It is not that uncommon to find that families are often not close, especially those of pre-First World War noble houses. However, the Fifth Earl’s obvious preference for his daughter is not in and of itself direct evidence that the Sixth Earl was not his biological son, bringing us back to the fact that in the absence of DNA tests, an examination of physical features may offer at least a partial line of enquiry for taking the research further. The debate continues!
Regardless, the answer to Cross’s question matters not, since the heir was there, the couple could now go their separate ways. Almina stayed at home at Highclere, the ruinously expensive family pile near Berkshire and felt entitled to live the life she chose, while her husband started out on his ultimately fatal odyssey to Egypt. Carnarvon could rely on limitless funding for his twin passions: driving in big cars and digging in ancient sites.
The whole of Lord Carnarvon’s great expedition to Egypt, which resulted in history’s greatest archaeological find, was paid for with Almina’s Rothschild money. Although the Carnarvon’s spent considerable time in Egypt, both as participants in Cairo’s ‘season’, and on various archaeological expeditions, relatively little detail of this part of their lives is presented in the book. Almina’s personal excavation of a set of alabaster jars in the Valley of the Kings is mentioned, but the location and dates of other excavations received little mention. As Almina stayed in England when Carnarvon rushed to the Valley of the Kings when Carter sent the famous telegram informing his patron of his discovery, even the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb is addressed in one short section. Without her presence, it was left to Carnarvon and his right-hand man, Howard Carter, to finally open Tutankhamun’s tomb in February 1923, the discovery itself created a worldwide sensation. Shortly afterwards, complaining that he had been bitten by a mosquito, the peer took to his bed. Within three weeks he was dead. Many others connected to the expedition followed him to their graves, and so began the ‘Curse of Tutankhamun.’ Altruistically, Almina continued to subsidize Carter's important work in the Valley of the Kings long after Carnarvon’s death.
At the time of the Earl’s death, the Carnarvon’s had been married for twenty-eight years but within months of her husband’s passing in Egypt, ‘grieving widow’ Almina, changed from Lady Carnarvon to a mere Mrs., when she married Lieutenant Colonel Ian Dennistoun, an effete Guards officer whose promotion was largely due to his first wife Dorothy’s seduction of Sir John Cowans, the Army’s Quartermaster General.
It was in 1920 that Dennistoun first met Almina in Paris, three years before her husband died, and almost immediately found himself set up in a smart cottage by his new ‘best friend.’ For Almina, only money talked and she felt inclined to hire a suitable male companion, and the newly divorced Dennistoun suited her needs beautifully. She also found that he was also extremely useful for money-laundering. During this time, Almina often sold jewels and works of art she had inherited from Rothschild and, looking for a ‘hidey-hole’ away from the taxman’s gaze, she used Dennistoun’s accounts to ‘lose’, in a single year, £5 million in today’s money.
Not one to let the dust settle, Almina enjoyed the attentions of another lover, Tommy Frost, who was also a friend of her son. Additionally, Frost was also the lover of Dorothy Dennistoun, and what had once been a friendship between the two women turned into an intense rivalry that ended in social disgrace.
Around this time and because of his father’s sudden death, the new Earl found himself in straightened financial circumstances. In accordance with the custom of primogeniture, he’d inherited the cash-guzzling Highclere Castle, however, the bulk of the Carnarvon fortune resided in the money his mother had brought to her marriage and not surprisingly she wasn’t letting go. Ironically, Dennistoun, in comparison to his step-son, Carnarvon, was now rich and his ex-wife, who had given her body for his advancement, came after him for money. There began a lurid High Court case, that would have seemed unbelievable even in a work of fiction. As a result, the dirty linen was dragged out in spectacular fashion. Positioning herself as a victim, Dorothy Dennistoun claimed her husband had forced her into having the affair with General Cowans, and that this sacrifice had blighted her life. In addition, he owed her money.
Not surprisingly, counter-accusations flew and in short order, it was discovered that Dorothy had slept her way around Europe and was not to be trusted. Defence counsel offered to read out a list of her other lovers in court, but the judge cut him short, snapping: ‘The alphabet has been heavily taxed already in designating the men concerning Mrs Dennistoun.’
So tumultuous was the reaction and such was the uproar, that even His Majesty King George V felt compelled to comment on the situation and wrote to the Lord Chancellor through his private secretary expressing disgust that the case had even been allowed to come to court. One commentator said: ‘The case is of no more importance than the conduct of two or three dogs in the gutter.’ Regardless of appearances, the country as a whole was gripped. When the time came, Almina found herself in the witness box, confessing to her money-laundering, her adultery, her bankrolling Dennistoun and to giving him money for his ex-wife. With all the exposed shenanigans made public fodder, the case blackened the names of everyone concerned, and at its conclusion Dennistoun was kicked out of the Army reserve.
Rather drastically, the case cost the former Countess dear in cash terms too, and subsequent sales of heirlooms failed to fill the rapidly expanding gaping hole she had dug for herself. After the conclusion of the trial, it emerged that Almina could have bought her rival off for very little outlay of cash before the case but she had insisted on going ahead. When all the costs were tabulated it is estimated that the entire ordeal cost her the equivalent of £400,000. Strapped for cash, Almina decided to fall back on a tried and true, tested formula, opening a high society nursing home.
Looking to her past, Almina drew upon the time that Highclere, like other stately homes during the First World War, was turned into a haven for the wounded, and it had also been a time when Almina discovered a passion for wearing a matron’s uniform and bossing people around. Almina, wholly and independently of Carnarvon, opened and managed the war hospital, firstly at Highclere then in London.
Thus challenged, Almina, seemed to come into her own as a person to be reckoned with, forceful, bright and ‘somewhat prone to self-importance’, who when she elected to transform Highclere into a hospital and convalescent home flourished. With Rothschild's indispensable approval and Lord Carnarvon's less eager consent, he announced that his new address would become ‘Carnarvon, Amputate, Highclere’ the Countess's wish was granted. Highclere Castle’s ‘Dr Johnny,’ following a spectacular motor-crash into a ditch in France, the Earl's injuries had necessitated the services of this friendly personal physician, assembled a team of heart-stoppingly pretty nurses who, under strict orders from Almina, always wore full make-up when on duty. Highclere patients, were individually assigned their own bee-stung ruby-lipped Nightingale, and ‘felt as if they had arrived in paradise’.
In 1916, finding that the castle offered insufficient scope for her philanthropy, Almina acquired a London house and converted it, with the approval of Lord Kitchener, into a further hospital. Not, of course, any old hospital: one gratified patient recalled being served breakfast in bed by Almina's butler, before a footman inquired in which order he would care to read the papers.
The bills for this lavish care were met, as ever, by Rothschild. But his death in 1918 did not impede his extravagant daughter's generous impulses.
Financial challenges mounting, she was now ready to try it again, this time for money. Her first venture into this arena was Alfred House in central London, named after Alfred de Rothschild, which was likened to the Ritz Hotel. Rather ceremoniously, a hall porter in medals and a uniform greeted ‘guests’ while Almina wafted round in her uniform. At cross purposes with her original goal of providing the service in the first place, the trouble was she often failed to provide a bill at the end of a guest’s stay. ‘She thought it was bad taste,’ recalled one grateful patient.
Falling short of her objective and to boost more much needed income, a new service was added to the menu at Alfred House, even though the termination of pregnancies remained illegal in Britain until 1967. Taking advantage of this convenient ‘high society’ loophole, a steady trickle of well-to-do female patients were now checking in to the nursing home. In retrospect, the consequences, had Almina been caught, would have been a jail term: instead high society looked the other way. Almina’s nephew by marriage, Evelyn Waugh, described it as ‘Almina’s abortionist parlour’. Even breaking the law was not enough for Almina to recoup her losses. Never having had to count the cost, she was now losing money at a spectacular rate.
Later in life, as Almina was nearing seventy, incorrigible as ever, she took a new lover, James Stocking, a heating engineer, he was almost thirty years her junior. This choice of companion was, indeed, a final abandonment of her social position, but it was not the first. When her hopeless husband, Dennistoun, had died she had even taken a fancy to the young undertaker who attended his corpse. She was now, in the eyes of society, hopelessly declassee and worse still, she was broke. ‘In forty years she had used and abused every last vestige of her portfolio of investments, every asset was gone,’ observes Cross. In today’s values she had blown the staggering equivalent of £50 million.
It was left to her son, the Sixth Earl, to add the final insult to injury, when he shopped Almina to the Inland Revenue. In his words, he called his mother, not without justification given her attempts to starve him of his inheritance, ‘a scheming swindler.’ So deep was his hated of her, that he had shut off her favorite room at Highclere. It remained locked until after his death in 1987. At the age of seventy-five, Almina was declared bankrupt, largely due to the actions of her son. Faced with even further reduced circumstances, she moved to a terrace house in Bristol with no hot water and got by on occasional Highclere handouts. Tragically, Almina died after choking on a piece of chicken in the early summer of 1969. She was ninety-three, and it had been a life as dramatic as anything from the movies.
Told in stages, the first half of Almina’s life is not particularly contentious, if anything she is rather mundane, portrayed as a vain, somewhat shallow Edwardian lady of high station, which she was of course. Indeed, for much of the first few chapters she is a flat, one-dimension character seemingly lacking in motivation and characterized more by her dislikes than by any clear motivation other than ambition, and perhaps vanity. Although Almina’s early life appears shallow, an Edwardian Countess was not expected to be much more than an engaging hostess and socialite, and at those tasks Almina clearly succeeded. Yet we are left to wonder why she set out to rock the tranquil stability of her social milieu in the manner in which she eventually did.
The very end bit of Cross’ book is a short, three page epilogue which is easily missed it you are not looking for it. It is here that Cross tells the story of an early attempt by the Carnarvon family to produce an official biography of Almina, to have been authored by one David Sox. In the recounting of this information, Cross conjectures that the initial research led Sox to similar conclusions about the 6th Earl’s parentage and as a result, the work was quietly dropped, although he identifies possible alternative reasons as well. For this esoteric, and perhaps for many more, it is potentially the most explosive and riveting part of the book. Further letting of stark daylight by Cross onto the shadow filled mysteries of the past locked away and out of sight!
Rest assured it is a highly competent biography, but ultimately one which is more engaging and successful in documenting the latter half of her life which is much less celebrated than during her marriage to Carnarvon
Ironically, the biography that should have stood ‘head and shoulders’ above the rest and been glorious; was recently published by the current Countess of Carnarvon, namely Fiona Herbert! Esoterically, I say this based on the very real fact that this could have been the biography of biographies with regard to the intoxicating Almina, by the simple fact that it would have been ‘penned’ from inside the walls of Highclere itself, with all the family archives at hand. Drawing on personal family stories and little known anecdotal information not readily available to the public, ‘Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey’ had every opportunity to set the record straight on all things Almina.
Although I am not one to split hairs! Oh who am I kidding? I actually love to split hairs! Staring up at me boldly from the cover, the writing was on the proverbial wall, just from the title alone. Never at anytime would it have been correct to address her as Lady Almina. As the wife of an Earl she would not have been called such a thing. Almina, Countess of Carnarvon or Almina, Lady Carnarvon to be sure, Almina Carnarvon perhaps, but Lady Almina, never! Fiona Herbert should have known better, and unfortunately she sets a disappointing tenor from the very get go! Granted such a point might be lost on many, however, it is not correct nor acceptable, especially from the current Countess of Carnarvon herself.
Sadly, because of the breezy, matter of fact and unpretentious style in which it is written, Fiona Carnarvon's book seldom loses sight of its objective: a blatant tie-in with Downton Abbey. A case of getting while the getting is good! Unfortunately, this is where the author loses sight of providing us with a fascinating journey based on her husband’s glamorous, albeit at times, outrageous great-grandmother, ideally a biography dedicated to the truth told from the family's point of view would have been preferred. It is not so much what her ladyship tells us, but rather what she doesn’t mention that leaves me cold. Lackluster from start to finish!
Since the Downton Abbey series is currently dealing with the devastating effects of World War I, the last pages of Fiona Carnarvon’s book rather conveniently skim briskly over Almina's postwar life and her second marriage to Dennistoun. If asked, no doubt the Countess would plead that they were not important based on the fact that she did not find them relatable to the series. I say bunk to that! It is more a red flag, indicating the sweeping of family skeletons under the carpet. Additionally, neither in the bibliography nor in the text is there any reference to Almina's grim last years. Neither are we the reader told that another, far more objective, if not darker portrait of Almina was published recently, Cross’ study noted above.
Personally, I would be willing to allow that the author might be excused for wishing to exploit the link to Downton Abbey, but only just. And I say that based simply on the fact that ideally monies earned from this supposed biographical ‘tat’ goes to maintaining the family manse, keeping it safe for future generations of Herberts yet to come. Where I am more hard pressed to be lenient is Lady Carnarvon's decision to ignore William Cross' startling and more revealing account.
Cross’ portrayal of Almina, as a promiscuous, highly ambitious and in my opinion admirable woman; whose calamitous fall makes for far more compelling reading! Regrettably, and in deference to Cross, she seems like another person altogether when compared to the present Lady Carnarvon's underwhelming, highly white-glossed tale of blurred images, as opposed to Cross’ mirror like reflection of Almina.
Where Lady Carnarvon fails us, Cross effortlessly fills the breach and gives us a book that reveals, that rather than art imitating life, nothing in the Downton Abbey TV series could match the scandals at Highclere, so intricately detailed in his work.
Full details about "The Life and Secrets of Almina Carnarvon", a candid biography of the 5th Countess of Carnarvon, on Tutankhamun fame can be found on this link below.