Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Lady Catherine, the Earl, and the Real Downton Abbey by Fiona Carnarvon

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Netgalley
Read: September 23, 2013

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.

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Fiona Carnarvon's Lady Catherine, the Earl, and the Real Downton Abbey fell into my lap. My mother had learned of and recommended the book's predecessor after I'd turned her onto the television series, but I hadn't found time to pick it up. That said, my curiosity had been sparked, so it wasn't all that surprising when I jumped at the opportunity to review book two. Unfortunately, my optimistic expectations crumbled when face to face with reality. 

To be clear, I don't think Lady Catherine, the Earl, and the Real Downton Abbey a bad book. There is a lot of great information for those whose knowledge of the period begins and ends with the British costume drama, but being slightly more acquainted with the details, I can't say I found the text particularly enlightening. I appreciate getting to know Catherine Wendell, Lord Porchester, and the events that marked their lives, but in looking at the bigger picture, I confess I found myself bored and disinterested. 

I found Carvarvon's prose dry and often felt the narration formulaic. As much as I hate admitting it, I had to fight my way through this one and on completion can't say I'm inclined to rush into Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey: The Lost Legacy of Highclere Castle.  

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If some things at Highclere were the same, many more were not. The Second World War changed the social and economic framework in Britain; it marked the end of the era in which the country house was a symbol of power and privilege, and a cornerstone of the natural social order. While Highclere continued to be the home of the 6th Earl of Carnarvon, for the first few years after the war he found it increasingly difficult to make ends meet. It was the money from the flotation of Pyrotenax—the company Bro had urged him to invest in—that fundamentally redeemed his position in 1954. Porchey, and all the Carnarvons, were extremely lucky: it might have been very different.
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Holly (2 Kids and Tired) said...

I read Lady Almina and I found it mostly dry and austere. It had its fascinating moments and I did like the glimpse we got of life in a great house, but the book was disappointing. I won't bother with any of the others.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for saving me the trouble!

williecross said...

Your blog visitors may care to know that my book " Catherine and Tilly : Porchey Carnarvon's Two Duped Lives" offers a marked contrast to Highclere's version of the two Sixth Countesses. Not least the book covers the torrid life and times of the wonderful dancer Tilly Losch, who was ( on paper) Countess of Carnarvon from 1939 until 1947, but maintained use of her title to her dying day.