Saturday, February 4, 2012

The Great War

A couple of years ago when I read AS Byatt’s The Children’s Book, I remarked:
Because I knew my history and knew what bloody carnage the War was, I began to suspect that many of the characters I had grown to love were not going to make it.  I didn’t worry only about the boys, but also about the girls because they went over as nurses and, in Dorothy’s case, as a doctor.  I found myself adopting a very fatalistic attitude about it and began to assume that all the boys would die.  And possibly some of the girls. 
I was thinking about this as I tuned in to last week’s episode of Downton Abbey on PBS.  We met the Crawley family and all of its servants last season, before the War began.  The first season ended with the surprise announcement that Britain was going to War against Germany.  This season has tried to show the effect of the War on the house called Downton Abbey and its inhabitants.
Just as when I read The Children’s Book, I assumed that there would be a lot of death and that most of the men we had met in the first season would be dead by the end of the second season. But until last week we really hadn’t seen much in the way of death and I thought this was a failing of the series. Certainly many of the staff members have experienced deaths, but they have happened off screen.  The cook has lost a nephew – shot to death by his own side.  O’Brien, the ladies’ maid, has lost a brother to shell shock.  We’ve seen the soup kitchen that was set up for the returning men.  And of course the house has been converted into a hospital for soldiers recovering from their wounds – we’ve seen many of the wounded come through the hospital.  At one point early in the season, Lady Sybil remarks that all the men she knows are dead and this spurs her to become a nurse.  But we don’t meet any of those dead men.  The male characters have come through the War singularly unscathed – both the doctor and the Earl not being sent to the front and Bates being unfit for duty having been wounded in the Boer War.  The former footman, Thomas, goes to the front but intentionally wounds himself so that he may return home.
The writers tried to remedy this in last week’s episode, which was very sad.   One of the younger footmen died and the heir to the title is gravely injured. 
And yet I still felt as if the show still has not really brought out just how overwhelming the War was for society. Even setting up the house as a nursing hospital hasn’t really shown the true horrors of the war.
This week I read Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey: The Lost Legacy of Highclere Castle, which was written by the current Countess of Carnarvon.  As a book, it isn’t perhaps the best biography I’ve ever read, but it introduced me to a fascinating real life character who lived through World War I much as the fictional characters of Downton Abbey are supposed to be living through World War I.
Highclere Castle is the stately home that is used as the fictional Downton Abbey.  During World War I, the occupants were the Earl and Countess of Carnarvon.  I knew a bit about the Earl because he and Howard Carter had been the pair who discovered King Tut’s tomb.  But I knew nothing about his wife Almina.
Almina was allegedly the illegitimate daughter of Alfred de Rothschild, who undoubtedly showered her with money.  Although not allowed into “good” society until she married the Earl, she led a privileged life and never wanted for anything.  The Earl certainly married her for her money.  Prior to World War I Almina was a typical socialite, the perfect hostess at Highclere Castle.  But she also discovered that she was good with sick people, so when War loomed she made the decision, on her own, to convert the castle into a hospital.  Unlike in the television series, the real Highclere Castle was used as a real hospital with rooms set aside for surgery rather than just rooms for recuperation. 
In reading about all the work Almina and her daughter put in at this hospital, I realized that she wasn’t at all sheltered from the true horrors of war.   And unlike the fictional countess of the television series, she didn’t just happen into the situation of running a hospital, she took the reins into her hands and made it happen.
Then, when the numbers of wounded became more than the Castle could accommodate, Almina, with the financial assistance of her father, opened a hospital in London.
Almina secured the lease on 48 Bryanston Square, a delightful town house in Mayfair overlooking a peaceful garden behind the railings.  The Cadogan Trustees noted in their minutes that ‘they were loath to entertain the application’ from Lady Cararvon but, if they declined it, the War Office might use their powers to commandeer the premises.  So, they agreed to Almina’s request.  The house had two distinct advantages over Highclere:  specialist doctors were never more than half an hour away, and it could be far better equipped to treat a wider range of injuries than the Castle ever could.  Almina installed a lift, a purpose-built operating theatre and an X-ray machine.  Then she transferred all her staff from the country up to town and put them under the charge of sister Macken, the head matron.
It seems amazing today, in an age of professional hospitals including military hospitals, that private persons were obliged to set up hospitals to care for the wounded men coming back from the continent. Almina seems to have been completely involved in the running of the hospital and grew attached to many of the men who came through its doors.  She only returned to Highclere to stay with her family on occasional weekends. 
Because this book was written by “family” it portrays Almina in a very good light and doesn’t say much about her life after the untimely death of Lord Carnarvon. In fact, this biography is noticeable for not really finishing the story in any detail, which made me google Almina.  I understand that there are other biographies that go into her life after the death of Lord Carnarvon, in which she ran through all of her money.
But it is a fascinating account of Almina’s time running the private hospital during the War.  I found myself thinking that the story of the real Countess is more interesting than the story of the fictional Crawley family. I could feel Almina’s exhaustion as hundreds of thousands of wounded were shipped home and her beds were constantly full.  The War seemed more real to me than it has seemed as I was watching the television series.