Wednesday, 18 September 2013

Lady Catherine, The Earl and the Real Downton Abbey


Sometimes the facts are even more extraordinary than the fiction...

This book tells the story of Lady Catherine, a beautiful American girl who became the chatelaine of Highclere Castle, the setting for Julian Fellowes' award-winning drama Downton Abbey.

Charming and charismatic, Catherine caught the eye of Lord Porchester (or 'Porchey', as he was known) when she was just 20 years old, and wearing a pale yellow dress at a ball. She had already turned down 14 proposals before she eventually married Porchey in 1922. But less than a year later Porchey’s father died suddenly, and he became the 6th Earl of Carnarvon, inheriting a title and a Castle that changed both their lives forever.

Catherine found herself suddenly in charge of a small army of household staff, and hosting lavish banquets and weekend house parties. Although the couple were very much in love, considerable challenges lay ahead for Catherine. They were immediately faced with the task of saving Highclere when debts threatened to destroy the estate. As the 1920s moved to a close, Catherine’s adored brother died and Catherine began to lose her husband to the distractions London had to offer. When the Second World War broke out, life at the Castle would never be the same again.

Drawing on rich material from the private archives at Highclere, including beautiful period photographs, the current Countess of Carnarvon transports us back to the thrilling and alluring world of the ‘real Downton Abbey’ and its inhabitants. 

I  decided I wanted to read this book as I love Downton Abbey.  I know Highclere isn't Downton and the characters around it are different people, I love all things history which made this interesting.

Did this book pull me into the world of an aristocratic house at the beginning of the 20th century, the answer is, yes.

The book is set from 1922 until 1945 and the end of World War II.  It is based around the 6th Earl of Carnarvon and his wife Catherine.

The book starts as the 5th Earl goes to Egypt as Tutankhamun's tomb has been found.  The 6th Earl or Lord Pochester (Porchy) is in India with his regiment and his new wife Catherine.  They receive a telegram to say the Earl has been taken seriously ill in Egypt and Porchy needs to be by his side. He dashes to his fathers side and his mother Lady Almina dashes from England to also be there, but it soon becomes apart he will not make it.

The book weaves through their marraige into the 20's and 30's, the ups of their 2 children and the downs, needing to sell Highcleres many treasures to pay death duties, Porchy's tempestuous relationship with is mother, the tradgic death of Catherine's beloved brother and ultimately Catherine and Porchy's divorce in 1939.

The book goes into details about their lives and the lives of their children, but at times becomes distracted by outside events .  This is important to the story but I found myself wanting to read more about the famous Highclere parties, when Prince George attended or Winston Churchill. There were many of these stories within the book, but not enough.

I found I wanted to find out more about Porchy's mother Lady Almina and will also read the book about her life.  Catherine was lovely but had suffered with upsets all through her life.  Porchy again was nice if a little self centered.

In summary I did enjoy this book but for me it didn't go into enough detail about life at Highclere or the staff, especially during the war.  It is worth reading especially for history buffs.  If you like Downton or old houses it is a good read. 

1 comment:

  1. Interesting and well thought through blog. Congratulations. For the sake of fair play and to give all Highclere – Herbert family followers or would be visitors to Highclere Castle ( a great place to soak up Downton magic) all the possible choices available of book title may I please mention that as with the previous coverage in 2011 regarding the life and times of Lady Almina ( the colourful Fifth Countess) in two books with distinct differences of fact , my book " Catherine and Tilly: Porchey Carnarvon's Two Duped Wives. The Tragic Tales of the Sixth Countesses of Carnarvon" will play out for what its worth or not alongside Highclere's latest romp on 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. A sketch of Tilly Losch the great dancer, and bit part actress, a sort of combined Madonna and Lady Gaga of her time, is included too. Kind Regards, William Cross, FSA Scot.