Book Review

‘Lady Catherine, the Earl, and the Real Downton Abbey’ by Fiona, Countess of Carnarvon

fcoc lcteatrdaSTORY: Highclere Castle has a new resident, the daughter-in-law of Lady Almina, an American beauty from New York and a descendant of famous American families.

Catherine Wendell first met Lord Porchester (Porchey), son of Lady Almina, the heir to Highclere and 6th Earl of Carnarvon, in Gibraltar. At just 19 and utterly entrancing, she had already received many proposals of marriage and immediately caught 24-year-old Porchey’s discerning eye.

They married in 1922, and after the unexpected death of Almina’s husband, the 5th Earl of Carnarvon, they moved into Highclere Castle. Beset by death duties and money problems, the Earl and Countess were unsure they could keep Highclere. Thanks to the sale of the decade at Christies Auction House, hundreds of cherished paintings went under the hammer, from a Leonardo da Vinci to works by Reynolds, Gainsborough, and Romney. Porchey even sold the famous family pearls. By 1926 Catherine and Porchey knew they could stay.

Over the next few years, the young couple entertained at Highclere, sharing it with other royalty and friends from London society. Catherine was much loved by the staff and adored by her husband and two young children. Although Almina still occasionally came to stay, Catherine’s own American mother, Mrs. Jacob Wendell, was the most regular visitor.

By 1936, Catherine and Porchey’s marriage had become increasingly troubled. Devastated, Catherine bravely unraveled her marriage. Porchey hastily traveled to New York to marry his new lover, who, however, ran off the night before the wedding with a Hollywood mogul.

Now in London with her children, Catherine fell in love with a handsome and charming man, whom she married in 1938. Porchey continued at Highclere, having to find new staff (the old staff accompanied Catherine to London) and marrying the famous Austrian actress Tilly Losch on the day war broke out in 1939. Catherine’s husband joined the navy while Porchey’s new wife quickly left for America.

Highclere Castle was turned into a home for evacuee children as well as lodging for soldiers. Porchey joined the war effort as an army adjutant (later a liaison officer) and was commended by the Americans stationed near Highclere. Catherine and Porchey’s son Henry also joined the war in 1943. Like other wives and mothers, Catherine endured the unbearable stress of waiting for news of two beloved people in her life.

Using copious materials – including diaries and scrapbooks – from the castle’s archive, the Countess of Carnarvon brings alive a very modern story in a beautiful and famous setting, paying particular attention not just to the goings on upstairs, but also to the butler footmen and other staff whose lives downstairs kept the Castle moving forward into the twentieth century.

REVIEW: This book has been touted as the story of the “real” Downton Abbey, but as someone who has not been a big fan of the series, I found the book to be just a wonderful history of Highclere Castle which is the setting for the PBS series, “Downton Abbey.”

The biography starts off when the lovely American, Catherine Wendell, marries Lady Almina’s son, Lord Porchester, the 6th Earl of Carnarvon.  It follows them through the ups and downs of their marriage, and the births of their children, in addition to the stories of the lives of their family members.  The descriptions of the opulence of Highclere Castle, plus the social life of the upper class are very detailed to show all of its elegance.  

As the story continues, we see how Britain gets into World War II and with the financial and social changes of the outcome of the War that affected everyone.  The War is described in a very engrossing way and I felt that I learned even more about the battles that I’ve known before.  I cannot say that this book was boring in any sense of the word.

The story ends with Fiona, the current Countess of Carnarvon, who is married to Geordie, the 8th Earl of Carnarvon.  She is also the author of this biography and did a magnificent job of researching and writing the book.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading all about this amazing time in Britain and am now very eager to visit Highclere Castle which I’m sure other readers will want to do as well.

 *Connie for b2b

*Book provided by my local library.

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