It was one of those evenings in Dallas hot enough to make you remember last winter’s ice storms fondly. But inside the auditorium at Highland Park United Methodist Church, the crowd could imagine themselves in the environs of Highclere Castle, where summer temperatures are thirty degrees cooler than the sweltering heat of Texas, as book reviewer Joy Davis brought to life both the castle’s real and fictional history in the annual summer Rejebian book review series.
As every PBS viewer dreaming of tiaras knows, Highclere, home of the earls of Carnarvon, is also the castle behind the TV series Downton Abbey. Its current countess has built on the popularity with the book whose review drew in Dallas fans, Lady Almina and the Real Downtown Abbey.
It all began with the marriage of the castle's "cash-strapped” fifth earl. His bride was young, beautiful, and--thanks to the dowry provided by her alleged godfather, French banker Alfred de Rothschild--fabulously wealthy. The account by Lady Fiona, the current countess, claims she was in fact Rothschild’s illegitimate daughter.
“On Wednesday 26 June 1895, Miss Almina Victoria Marie Alexandra Wombwell, a startlingly pretty nineteen-year-old of somewhat dubious social standing, married George Edward Stanhope Molyneux Herbert, the 5th Earl of Carnarvon,” writes Lady Fiona. “It was an unusual spectacle, but then everything about this wedding was unusual. Almina’s name, the circumstances of her birth and most of all her exceptional wealth, all contributed to the fact that this was no typical Society wedding.”
Dallas reviewer Davis dressed for the part of Almina in a flowing, lacy white version of a Victorian lady’s “morning coat,” to put her audience in the mind of her nineteenth century heroine.
But it took more than pretty clothes and fairy-tale romance to cement the marriages of
fading aristocracy to wealthy heiresses. So Davis threw in fillips from another volume, To Marry an English Lord, by Gail MacColl and Carol Wallace, detailing the back stage negotiations and not always happy results of these trades of money for titles in the century which witnessed the wedding of Almina and her earl.
“Lady Almina takes the story through the Victorian and Edwardian eras,” Davis said, “through the First World War and then through the Egyptian era when Almina’s husband discovered the tomb of pharaoh Tutankhamun with famous archeologist Howard Carter.”
Some parts of the TV series mirror the real story, with Almina actually opening her castle as a hospital during World War I. But Downton Abbey fans still grieving the death of a major character in the series must hope writers don’t script anything as dire as the death of the 5th earl shortly after helping unearth the riches of Tutankhamun.
Almina had been recovering in England from her own illness while her husband was in Egypt. Notified that he was near death, she chartered a two-seater airplane and set out on an odyssey to rejoin the earl. “In early April 1923,” Davis told her audience, “the earl opened his eyes and whispered, ‘I have heard the call and I am preparing to go.’” Within minutes, he was dead.
Want more Rejebian? You’ve got three more Wednesdays to hear the rest of the summer book review series, which concludes July 30 with another favorite Dallas reviewer, Rose Mary Rumbley. For more about the series, see
(Next Monday, catch up with Texas author Lawrence Wright and his newest book, Going Clear. For free copies of the book, contact Dallas Public Library branches Preston Royal, Audelia Road and Renner Frankford.)