Recently my grandmother lent me Lady Catherine, the Earl, and the Real Downton Abbey, a look at Catherine Wendell, the 6th Countess of Carnarvon, and her life and connection with Highclere Castle, the real English country house used as the set of Downton Abbey. My grandmother and I are both big Downton Abbey fans, and she rightly thought I would enjoy learning more about the real “abbey” and its history. This particular book is by Fiona, the current and 8th Countess of Carnarvon, and is her second about the people, especially the women, who have called Highclere home.
This book tracks the life of Catherine Wendell, an American-born, British-raised beauty, mainly between World War I and II, along with her marriage to Lord Porchester, the son of the 5th Lord Carnarvon (co-“discoverer” of King Tut’s tomb with the archaeologist Howard Carter–for an excellent look at that archaeological discovery, check out In the Valley of the Kings: Howard Carter and the Mystery of King Tutankhamun’s Tomb by Daniel Meyerson). It briefly covers both Catherine and Porchey’s (as he was known) childhoods, introduction, wedding, and time in India with Porchey’s regiment before focusing on their time as Earl and Countess of Carnarvon, prior to their divorce, along with their evolving relationship with each other and the house post-divorce. In the telling of Lady Catherine’s life, Lady Carnarvon thoroughly examines the role of the great English houses in a changing society, the shifting priorities in maintaining such a house, and women’s evolving place in society, making meticulous use of a myriad of primary documents from the castle’s archives.
The book itself is an easy and, at times, breezy read. It’s very conversational with just a touch of respectful gossip (if gossip can be respectful) at the right moments. Classy gossip, if you will. And refreshingly, it is not at all about the television show. Lady Carnarvon has cleverly co-opted the title of the show as an effective marketing device, mentioning it in her own title and the introduction, but otherwise her focus is entirely on Lady Catherine and Highclere. However, she frequently builds up to a seemingly important moment and then quickly glosses over the moment itself. She also occasionally foreshadows events that she never touches on again. That being said, her account is a loving yet realistic portrait of her husband’s grandparents and life in the British aristocracy at a time when the very idea of aristocracy was being called into question. I say realistic because Lady Carnarvon does not gloss over the more unsavory or difficult aspects of many of the individuals involved, including Porchey’s philandering, his mother’s spending habits, or Catherine’s struggle with depression and alcoholism. She feels that her duty is to tell the whole story of her family and to preserve its entire history rather than just the “public” parts.
That right there is the real merit of this book. Lady Carnarvon is working hard to preserve the history and legacy of Highclere and all of its inhabitants, from the lowest tenant to the highest lord. She devotes a significant amount of time on several of those in service to the 6th Earl and Countess of Carnarvon, deftly weaving in their experiences into the tapestry of the house’s history and emphasizing their importance both individually and collectively. I don’t know if Lady Carnarvon is a professional historian or not, but it is obvious that she takes her role as Countess and keeper of Highclere’s entire history very seriously. I hope that she continues to do so to ensure that the many stories of the owners, their staff, and the surrounding tenants and citizens continue to be told.