In 1923 the Fifth Earl of Carnarvon died from a flea bite after financing the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb. At the same time the lights went out in Cairo. Thus the curse of Tutankhamun was born. If truth be told, the Fifth Earl of Carnarvon had been long cursed before then.
In this fascinating book, William Cross traces and analyses the relationship, between Prince Victor Duleep Singh and George Herbert, fifth Earl of Carnarvon and their respective wives. It’s a strange story, not an edifying one, but though meticulously recording their faults in forensic detail, the author is remarkably non-judgemental. Well, I’m not. Though devoted to each other, Victor and George were arrogant, self-indulgent liars and cheats. In Billy Bunter (someone Victor comes to resemble in later life,) you have ‘Herbert Vernon Smith, the bounder of Greyfriars.’ Well, Herbert Vernon Smith is Francis of Assisi compared to these two.
Prince Victor Duleep Singh in later life
As a rather beautiful child
His development over the years
Prince Victor was the great grandson of The Lion of Punjab— founder of the great Sikh empire and godson to Queen Victoria. He was also one of life’s great chancers and blew what he had in brothels, gambling dens and casinos. It began in Eton, the two boys finding solace and comfort in each other to the eventual alarm of their parents. By then it was too late. Their addiction to moneylenders had already begun, their addiction to other activities also. Not yet twenty-one George Herbert Carnarvon contracted syphilis of the mouth.
Meanwhile, in an attempt to discourage their relationship, Prince Victor was persuaded to join the army and, in 1888,as a lieutenant in the 2nd Dragoons, was posted off to Canada. He left in a cloud of disgrace his manifold bills paid for by the army to avoid further scandal.
For those worried by the alleged peccadillos of Prince Andrew, the Cleveland Street Scandal involving leading aristocrats and the Duke of Clarence illustrates the fact that nothing changes in the lives of the powerful and wealthy, or at least vacuous rich. Prince Victor and George Herbert left the country barely in time.
By 1893 the George Herbert Carnarvon was hopelessly in debt and in desperate need of a rich wife. Scarred by smallpox, venereal disease and in very poor health, he had one advantage. The lucky woman who married him would assume the title of countess. Enter Almina Wombwell, daughter of Marie Boyer who happened to be the mistress of Baron Alfred de Rothschild, who in turn was godfather to Almina and possibly even her father.
Almina, her reward
Lord Carnarvon and Almina at the races
Money talks and thus began a loveless marriage. George Herbert Carnarvon was sickly, incapable and had little interest in women. His bosom companion Prince Victor was also in need of a ‘show marriage’ and found it in Lady Coventry. The queen was not amused by the possibility of an Indian marrying into blueblood, but was assured by Lady Coventry that she wouldn’t be sleeping with him.
For those who want to find out how and by whom Almina became pregnant, and gave birth to the sixth Earl of Carnarvon; and how the Countess Almina ended up in a terraced house in Bristol where she died in 1969 – the year of Woodstock and Altamont, you will have to buy and read this excellent book.