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Authors: The Countess of Carnarvon

Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey (5 page)

Marie’s background was very respectable. Her father was a Parisian financier and her mother was from a wealthy Spanish family. She grew up in Paris but spent a lot of time in England. Her two sisters both made good marriages to titled English gentlemen, but Marie’s marriage was less successful. Frederick Wombwell was the youngest son of a baronet and their wedding was attended by several prominent members of the aristocracy. But Frederick proved to be a bad lot, a drunkard and a thief; although the couple
had one son, also called Fred, they were estranged after Fred senior’s misdemeanours became too much for Marie to bear. (The hapless Wombwell eventually died, six years before Almina married, thus avoiding any further embarrassment and allowing his brother, Sir George Wombwell, to step in on her wedding day and give her away.)

Marie was a lonely woman when she met Alfred de Rothschild. Still young and attractive, she was marginalised by the fact that her husband was disgraced and she had very little money. Marie must have delighted in the companionship of a man who was happy to spoil her lavishly. Alfred and Marie appear to have enjoyed a good relationship throughout their lives, but there was never any chance of marriage, even after Fred Wombwell died, since Alfred had no desire to give up the freedom of his bachelor status or to marry a Roman Catholic. When Marie’s daughter was born, Alfred doted upon her, and although he never formally acknowledged the child as his, Almina’s unusual name, which was formed of a combination of her parents’, was a reference, albeit a coded one, to the reality of her parentage. Her mother was always known as Mina, to which was simply added the first two letters of her father’s name.

By the latter years of the nineteenth century, attitudes to affairs – at least amongst the upper classes – were generally tolerant, so long as discretion was maintained. Adultery was definitely a lesser evil than divorce. Disgrace came in exposure, not in the act, even for women. Although some of the Rothschilds were outraged (evidence, perhaps, of their less well-established status), and Marie was not received by the higher echelons of polite society (not just because of the affair but also, crucially, because of her husband’s fall
from grace), the relationship flourished in a grey area in which everyone turned a blind eye and politely agreed not to notice.

Almina was educated at home by a governess, as was the custom for girls from upper-middle- and upper-class households. The aim was to ensure she was well read and could fulfil the social skills required ‘for the drawing room’, which meant music, dancing, singing and sketching. Ordinarily there would also have been French lessons, but Almina already spoke the language fluently, having grown up speaking it with her French family.

Throughout her childhood, whether in Paris or London, Almina received a visit from her ‘godfather’, Sir Alfred, on her birthday. He always brought excessive presents. Almina got to know her benefactor well, especially when she was older, and was very fond of him. He adored her; and at some point, presumably, Almina must have been told the truth about her birth. It was, after all, an open secret.

By the time she was seventeen she was visiting Halton with her mother on a regular basis. Alfred being Alfred, the atmosphere was exuberant – the whole purpose of the gathering was to have fun. Everything was magnificently excessive. Alfred, who loved music, was fond of conducting the orchestras – which were brought in from Austria to play for his guests – with a diamond-encrusted baton. He had a private circus at which he was the ringmaster. He installed electric lighting so that his guests could properly appreciate his exquisite art collection. Alfred could be frivolous, but he was also a serious collector of artists such as Titian and Raphael. Typically, he was also a great benefactor and a founder trustee of the Wallace Collection. Highclere
still has some beautiful Sèvres and Meissen porcelain almost certainly given by Alfred to Almina.

In an atmosphere in which no expense was spared in the pursuit of pleasure and the acquisition of beautiful things, Almina enjoyed herself immensely. She had been spoiled all her life, but now she had a space in which to show off. Good clothes would have been ordered, day dresses and evening wear, hats and gloves in colours to match. The fashion of the 1890s was for corseted waists laced down to almost nothing, shoulders bare in the evenings, masses of lace trims and feathered fans. They were opulent times for the upper classes, and Almina’s wardrobe was her arsenal in the battle to attract a suitable husband. Doubtless the proprieties were observed in terms of her dress and her introduction to male company, but Almina certainly attended dances, dinners and concerts, all the regular entertainments in Alfred’s weekend home, always chaperoned by her mother, but very much on display. Out of sight of the critical gaze of London Society, Almina could be introduced, under strict conditions, to people that she had no opportunity to meet in town. She flourished and, given that she was petite, beautiful and charming, she began to attract attention.

Sir Alfred let it be known, discreetly, that he was prepared to settle a fortune on his ‘goddaughter’ on her marriage. Lord Carnarvon had been charmed by Almina at the State Ball in July; on discovering the good news about her prospects, he secured an invitation to a house party she was attending at Halton House in August 1893. They spent the weekend getting to know each other a little better. They were never alone, but flirtation could be managed,
discreetly, in the drawing room or strolling in the gardens. She must have been delighted with this handsome, amusing, eligible young noble. Lord Carnarvon could be reserved in big gatherings of people, but he was a man with a knack for making you want to know him better. Almina was, in any case, vivacious enough for both, and there was a definite attraction between them. The courtship took a long time to come to fruition, though. Carnarvon was asked to shoot at Halton in the December after he met Almina, but after that there appears to have been a hiatus. He took off on his travels and left England to winter in warmer climes, as usual, and there is no record of a further meeting until almost a year later, again at Halton, in November 1894. It would seem, however, that whatever the doubts on the Earl’s part, or outstanding finer details of the arrangement, they had by then been resolved, because in December 1894, Almina was invited with her mother to spend the weekend at Highclere.

It was a small party: just Almina, Marie and three other friends. Almina must have known that she was on the brink of securing a future as the Countess of Carnarvon. The machinations behind the scenes had all been overseen by her father. The process sparked by Carnarvon’s attraction to her person and prospects was drawing to a conclusion. She would have been on tenterhooks when she arrived at the Castle that weekend, aware that her destiny was hanging in the balance. If she was nervous, there is no trace of it in her signature in the Highclere guestbook. The letters flow in perfect copperplate script, in faded sepia ink, looping gracefully. Almina’s handwriting is almost a carbon copy of her mother’s, whose name is signed a little further down the page.

Miss and Mrs Wombwell clearly acquitted themselves perfectly, because that visit was enough to seal the deal. Sometime that weekend, the 5th Earl asked Almina to be his wife. Lord Carnarvon was not a demonstrably romantic man, but he was a gentleman, he was smitten, and, having asked Mrs Wombwell if he could request her daughter’s hand in marriage, he was about to ask a beautiful young girl to be his bride. It is tempting to imagine that he and Almina might have strolled to the Temple of Diana, goddess of love, a mile’s ramble from the house, and that he might have chosen that moment. But, given that it was December, and very probably not walking weather, perhaps it’s more likely that he spoke to Almina in the Music Room, or the Drawing Room. Naturally, she said yes.

Unusually, the engagement was not announced in
The Times
, but Lord Carnarvon did make Almina a present of some magnificent pearls. They had been in the family for generations; there is a splendid painting by Van Dyck of Anne Sophia, the 1st Countess, wearing them lightly strung around her neck.

The marriage settlement was discussed further by the respective parties’ lawyers and, on returning to town, the Earl paid a call on Sir Alfred.

Lord Burghclere, Carnarvon’s brother-in-law, wrote to his wife Winifred to reassure her on the subject of her brother’s marriage. ‘Porchy had to see A. Rothschild and it is practically settled about Almina. I am really glad … P is not the sort of person to marry merely for money … he likes the girl and that being so the rest will follow. You will hear from him yourself no doubt and from the others so I will not enlarge on the topic but I think you
may ease your mind on the subject and hope for the very best.’

With everything resolved to his satisfaction, Lord Carnarvon promptly chartered a steam yacht and took off for South America with his great friend Prince Victor Duleep Singh.

Marie and Almina came on a second visit to Highclere, in her fiancé’s absence, to get to know her prospective family and home better. They made the acquaintance of Winifred, the Earl’s elder sister, and Aubrey, his younger half-brother. They had already met Elsie, the Dowager Countess, who had been extremely kind to them both, and who was equally charming on this occasion. Plans began to be made for the wedding, and Almina was fizzy with excitement. Elsie invited Almina to call on her in town, although notably, Marie Wombwell, while most welcome in the country, was still not to be received in London.

Almina now spent a large proportion of her time in London with Elsie at the Carnarvon town house at 13 Berkeley Square and was apparently every bit as excited as an eighteen-year-old engaged to be married could be. Lord Burghclere, writing to his wife again, said, ‘I have seen Elsie, who is very good and a dear about Porch – and A. who seems to live there. I do not think [she] can keep it secret any time – she was literally bursting with it … she seems to be head over ears in love and says why can’t we be married and go on the yachting cruise together?’

But Almina was not merely excited. She was, unsurprisingly, almost needy in her clinginess and enthusiasm. After a lifetime spent living half in shadows, between worlds, she was clearly relishing the prospect of being more secure, not
just socially, but emotionally. Marie and Almina seem to have been extremely close; the fact that Marie was a frequent visitor to Highclere all her life reflects the continued strength of the relationship. But, despite the relative tolerance afforded by her parents’ domestic situation, the anxiety and frustration produced by her mother’s
demi-mondaine
status and the antics of Marie’s late husband, Frederick Wombwell, must have been considerable. Certainly it was obvious enough for Lord Burghclere to comment on. In the same letter he wrote, ‘The poor little thing seems desperate … (as I told Elsie) for a decent family as well as a husband.’ He added, rather sweetly, ‘I hope Porch will get on with A 1/50th as much as we do.’

The settlement had been drawn up by the couple’s wedding day, but it was not executed until one month later, safely after the happy event had taken place. The three parties were Alfred de Rothschild, Almina Wombwell – now the Countess of Carnarvon – and the 5th Earl. Carnarvon may have been struck by Almina’s many lovely qualities and have already developed a fondness for her, but he had also sensed his opportunity to drive a bargain. The Earls of Carnarvon had married heiresses before, thereby acquiring various other estates, and he was fully aware that aristocratic lifestyles frequently needed injections of new money to maintain them.

The first clause stipulated that Alfred de Rothschild would pay
£
12,000 yearly to Lady Carnarvon, or Lord Carnarvon if she died before him, throughout his life. A Highclere footman was paid
£
22 a year at that time, so the multiplier would put the value of this annual income at
£
6.5 million in today’s terms. This in addition to the fact that Lord
Carnarvon had asked Alfred to clear his substantial debts before the wedding took place so he could start married life with a clean sheet. Provision was also made for any children born to the couple. Alfred readily agreed to everything and the way was eased for these two young people to live in their gilded world, with every sort of extravagance and delight to amuse them.

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