Friday, December 30, 2011

Scandalous Spotlight: Almina, Countess of Carnarvon

Thanks to the success of Downton Abbey, which is filmed at Highclere Castle, attention is now being focused on Almina, Countess of Carnarvon, wife of the 5th Earl of Carnarvon (he who famously bankrolled Howard Carter's expedition to Egypt which ended with the discovery of King Tut's tomb).  Now two new biographies have been published about Almina, the first by the current Countess of Carnarvon entitled: LADY ALMINA AND THE REAL DOWNTON ABBEY, published just this week by Crown Publishing in the States (just in time for the new series of Downton Abbey which premieres soon on PBS).  The 2nd is by William Cross and entitled THE LIFE AND SECRETS OF ALMINA CARNARVON

Almina was born Almina Wombwell in 1876.  Her mother Marie Boyer was French, her father a respectable banker.  While her sisters all married well, Marie married a ne'er do well, younger son of a baron named Captain Frederick Wombwell. The couple seperated after Freddie apparently was caught stealing from Marie's parents. Marie soon made the acquaintance of Alfred de Rothschild, the man widely believed to be Almina's father.  Even her unusual name Almina was a combination of her parents names. However, although he doted on Almina and left her a fortune, Alfred never openly acknowledged Almina as his.  Almina grew up to be beautiful, vivacious and a little bit spoilt.  Petite, she was blessed with the curvaceous figure that was then fashionable, Fiona Carnarvon describes her as a "Pocket Venus," throughout the book. Her 'god-father' Alfred doted on her, lavishing her with expensive presents, no doubt to make up for not claiming her as his own.  Although a bachelor, he never married Almina's mother, even after her husband died.  Apparently he liked his freedom too much, plus Marie was Catholic.

In 1893, Almina made the acquaintance of George Edward Stanhope Molyneux Herbert, 5th Earl of Carnarvon.  The Earl was deeply in debt and needed a wealthy bride, Almina was looking for respectability.  Although she had been presented at court, the knowledge of paternity was like a dark cloud, even with her large dowery.  The Earl landed a huge £500,000 dowry (equivalent to £25million in today's money), which was used to finance his later discovery in Egypt.They each got what they wanted when they married on June 26th (the Earl's 28th birthday) of 1895 at St. Margaret's, Westminster.  At the age of 19, Almina was now the chateleine of Highclere Castle, as well as the Earl's other properties.

I bought Fiona Carnarvon's book on the day it was published and I find it riveting. While her book deals with a great deal of social history, detailing how an Edwardian household was run, the different roles of the servants, aspects of Edwardian society, Cross's book seems to take a more salacious tone. Just from reading the web-site , he seems to have a less rosy colored view of Almina. According to a recent article in The Daily Mail, Cross claims that Almina had an affair with her husband's best man, Prince Victor Duleep Singh, the son of the deposed Maharajah of Lahore, and that her son, the 6th Earl of Carnarvon was a product of this affair.  What this means of course, if it could be proven and I don't see anyone taking a DNA test anytime soon, is that the current Earl is not the real Earl.  Given that Prince Victor and his wife were childless, I think the changes that he is the father of 6th Earl are also slim. Although Prince Victor was of mixed race, there was a very good chance that if Almina had been pregnant by him, the child would have dark or tan skin.  How was she going to pass the baby off as the Earl's if that had happened? It boggles the mind. Was she going to claim the baby died? Or given it away secretly? I can't imagine that Almina would have taken such a risk, given her own background.

According to Cross' biography (which I have not read, my information comes from the reviews that I have read of it), the marriage between the 5th Earl and Almina was a marriage of convenience.  Even Fiona Carnarvon believes that the marriage was one of cash for a title, although she writes that Almina was deeply in love with her husband when they first got married. However, even if that were true, Almina would still have been required to provide the heir and the spare if possible, before discreetly seeking comfort elsewhere. Even if the Earl was, as Cross claimed, undersexed, that doesn't mean that he wasn't capable of fathering children with his wife. Heck, Oscar Wilde was gay, and still managed to father 2 children with his wife! Cross also writes that the Earl had a passion for photography, nude photography that is, commissioning 3,000 nude photos from a photographic studio, which makes him no different that a lot of aristocrats at that time. They may not have married for love, but they certainly spent a great deal of time together, traveling to Egypt many times form 1906 until his death. They were united in their passion for the Earl's discoveries as he went from a relatively small dig to the final discovery with Howard Carter. When she wasn't in Egypt, Almina used her prodigious energy as a political hostess, helping to get her brother-in-law Aubrey Herbert elected to Parliament, and giving speeches up and down the country to various women's groups. In January 1918 Sir Alfred de Rothschild died, leaving Almina almost everything - his house in Mayfair, a handsome tax-free legacy and fabulous pictures, objects and furniture.  A portion of her new fortune went to fund her husband's last expedition to Egypt with Howard Carter.

Almina remarried her 2nd husband, not long after the Earl of Carnarvon died in 1923 (his death was considered to part of the Curse of King Tut's tomb). Her 2nd husband was Lieutenant-Colonel Ian Onslow Dennistoun.  According to Christopher Wilson's article in The Daily Telegraph, Dennistoun owed his promotion to his wife Dorothy's liaison with the Army's Quartermaster General! Dennistoun and Almina met in Paris in 1920, 3 years before her husband's death.  Almost immediately, Almina set him  up in a smart cottage. Apparently Almina also used him for money-laundering purposes. She often sold jewelry and works of art that she had inherited from her god-father, and she used Dennistoun's bank accounts to hide the money from the tax man! Almina also apparently was having an affair with a man by the name of Tommy Frost who was also sleeping with Dennistoun's ex-wife Dorothy!

In 1925, Almina was part of a scandalous court case.  Her husband's ex-wife, Dorothy Dennistoun sued her husband for the alimony that he claimed that he couldn't pay at the time of their divorce.  Apparently, Dennistoun had promised to provide for his ex-wife in the future when he had the money.  When Dorothy heard that he had married the Dowager Countess of Carnarvon, who had been left a fortune by her 'godfather' Alfred de Rothschild, she thought she had hit pay dirt.  Almina was not about to give up any of her money to her husband's ex-wife. She convinced her husband to take the matter to the courts.  During the trial, Dorothy claimed that her husband forced her to sleep with the Quartermaster General to further his career.  Dennistoun basically claimed that his wife was a slut and couldn't be trusted.  Under oath, Almina admitted to adultery, and her money-laundering scheme.  Nobody, least of all Almina, came out smellling like a rose when the case was decided.  Although the jury decided in favor of Dennistoun, the case cost Almina more than 400,000 pounds, more than what it would have cost her to make Dennistoun's wife go away.

Cash-strapped, Almina decided to open a high-society nursing home.  During the war, like Downton Abbey, Highclere had been turned into a hospital.  Almina had spared no expense hiring the best doctors and equipment, decreeing that each wounded officer should have his own room, with down pillows and linen sheets. She believed in the importance of comfort, warmth and cosseting. But even before that, Almina had discovered a talent for nursing when her husband suffered a horrific car accident in 1901 in Germany.

Unfortunately, it turned out that she had no head for running a business, finding it difficult to present her patients with a bill.  Eventually the nursing home, according to Evelyn Waugh, became a place where high-class women could discreetly obtain an illegal abortion. Then at the age of 70, she became involved with a much younger man, who worked as heating engineer.  It was the last straw for her son, the 6th Earl, who gave her up to the IRS, calling her a "scheming swindler" (they were never close).  In her lifetime, Almina had gone through the equivalent of 50 million pounds, much of it no doubt going to pay for the Earl's expeditions to Egypt (they made yearly trips to the country, and the Earl started his own excavations in 1906), the upkeep on Highclere, taxes etc.  One has to wonder if her son's sour grapes came more from the fact that his mother managed her own money, rather than turn it over to him to manage.

Almina's last years were spent in obscurity and poverty.  She died at the age of 93 after choking on a piece of chicken, an ignominious end to a once glamorous life.


Highclere Castle today

3 comments:

viridian said...

Neat story. I'll be watching DA tonight.

Linda said...

Thank you for your well-researched post. It was a very interesting backdrop to the Downton Abbey series, which I devoured.

williecross said...

With the return of Downton Abbey to US screens this week ! Hurrah Hurrah!!! Series IV, those visiting your cleverly written website may wish to know that following on from my books on Lady Evelyn Stanhope and Elsie Howard, the two Fourth Countesses of Carnarvon and harnessing the the remaining ripples from the Almina Wombwell, the indefatigable Fifth Countesses of Carnarvon, I have now completed a further controversial book on the two Sixth Countesses of Carnarvon. " Catherine and Tilly: Porchey Carnarvon's Two Duped Wives. The Tragic Tales of the Sixth Countesses of Carnarvon" . This will play out alongside Highclere's latest romp on the American refugee Catherine Wendell. My narrative draws on original papers, newspapers and the Wendell papers in Portsmouth Athenaeum, in Maine, USA as well as the good will of members of the Wendell family. It will also be based on interviews and testimony from several people who knew and dearly loved Catherine. The book also includes a long detailed narrative on the life and times of Tilly Losch the great dancer, and bit part actress, who was Countess of Carnarvon from 1939-1947. Tilly was by far the most scandalous of ALL. William Cross, FSA Scot, South Wales, UK