Having fallen in love with the series called “Downton Abbey” on PBS’s Masterpiece Theatre, I was informed of this non-fiction piece which tells of the lives of the actual family who lived at Highclere Castle – the 6th Earl of Carnarvon and his Countess, the former Catherine Wendell, who was American-born. The setting of the series “Downton Abbey” is Highclere Castle, which was loaned to the producers through the graciousness of the Carnarvon family.
The lives of the Crawleys of Downton Abbey and the Carnarvons of Highclere Castle are highly dissimilar. Catherine Wendell did not come from a wealthy family and the Earl was not a faithful husband as we see in Robert, the Earl of Grantham. The Earl of Carnarvon was known as Lord Porchester, familiarly called Porchey throughout the book. The Carnarvons had two children, Henry and Penelope.
The one similarity in the two stories is the fact that the estates in both cases were in danger of going bankrupt. Each was saved through the help of family members who contributed money and knowledge of how to put their holdings into more profitable ventures, including stud farms.
The research on the story of Highclere Castle and its residents was done by Fiona, daughter-in-law of Catherine and Porchey. The result of her research is highly detailed, and perhaps tedious to some readers who might have expected a juicier type of story.
We learn through Fiona that Catherine, in her early years, was somewhat of a fragile character, not quite up to the responsibilities expected of one in her position. It is mentioned frequently that she used alcohol to bolster her ego or to calm her nerves. This certainly does not excuse Porchey for his roving eye early on in their marriage, and his need to stay away days at a time during which he sought the company of other women. Their marriage finally ended in divorce when Catherine became humiliated that his reputation for infidelity was widespread.
Much of the story of their lives takes place during World War I, during which their son Henry volunteered to serve in the British army. At this point, it is suspected that many readers may feel they’ve had enough, for the details of the progress of the war are not what one might expect when picking up a book about English aristocrats and their accompanying peccadilloes. Given this fair warning, it is possible to enjoy this book immensely, particularly as the setting can be easily imagined by followers of “Downton Abbey.”
Lady Catherine, the Earl, and the Real Downton Abbey by the 8th Countess of Carnarvon (2013)