August 9, 2011


Dark past of the real Downton Abbey duchess: A new book reveals that nothing in the Downton Abbey TV series could match the scandal at Highclere. (Christopher Wilson, 09 Aug 2011, The Telegraph)

Almina, Countess of Carnarvon ruled Highclere - much as Downton's Lady Grantham, played by Elizabeth McGovern, does - between 1895 and 1923. Her husband, the 5th earl, was the famous Egyptologist who perished, according to legend, as a victim of the Curse of Tutankhamun.

Lord Carnarvon's wealth came from his wife - which came from the man said to be her father, Baron Alfred de Rothschild, a flamboyant member of the banking family who left her his entire fortune but who never acknowledged paternity.

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. So, too, were the expenses at Highclere, the ruinously expensive family pile in Berkshire, and Almina felt entitled to live the life she chose.
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That included, according to rumour, an affair with her husband's best man, Prince Victor Duleep Singh, the Eton-educated son of the Maharaja of Lahore. The debate continues as to whether Prince Victor was, in fact, the father of Almina's son, the 6th Earl.

"Her husband was slow to do his duty as a husband," explains William Cross, author of The Life and Secrets of Almina Carnarvon, a rigorously-researched account which itself is worthy of a film. "The earl was not impotent, but he didn't find Almina attractive. His wife felt a similar revulsion. But the couple needed to beget an heir. Was Almina seduced by Prince Victor in April 1923, or set up by her husband?"

The answer to Cross's question matters not - the heir was there, the couple could now go their separate ways. Almina stayed at home while her husband started out on his ultimately fatal odyssey to Egypt.

The Carnarvons had been married for 28 years but within months of her husband's death in Egypt, Almina married Ian Dennistoun, an effete Guards officer whose promotion to lieutenant colonel was largely due to his first wife Dorothy's seduction of Sir John Cowans, the Army's Quartermaster General.

Dennistoun 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 - she wanted to hire a suitable male companion, and the newly divorced Dennistoun would do. He was also useful for money-laundering. Almina often sold jewels and works of art she inherited from papa 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.

Almina enjoyed the attentions of another lover, Tommy Frost, a friend of her son. 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.

Posted by at August 9, 2011 6:56 AM

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