Lady Catherine, The Earl, And The Real Downton Abbey, by Fiona Carnarvon
This book was written by the current Countess of Carnarvon, who is the wife of a descendant of the mismatched titular pair of this book’s title, and as a result this particular soap operatic tale of broken marriages and divided families is the airing of dirty laundry and the attempt to grab some popularity in doing so through the appeal of the television show Downton Abbey. And while I’m not sure that I would agree with the author’s decision to write about her in-laws in such a fashion, it is obvious that she does not mind the family’s heritage. Indeed, the family tree that precedes the book focuses more on Lady Catherine’s ancestry, which includes a maternal connection to the famous Lees and Taylors of Virginia than it does on the noble line of the 6th Earl of Carnarvon, which may be explained by the fact that this book appeals to be aimed at an American audience that would most appreciate hearing about those who are descended from American lines rather than British nobles or even the Rothschilds, from which the Earl also descends through his mother’s line.
This particular book is about 300 pages long and is divided into twenty chapters. The book begins with a prologue that introduces the subjects of interest and then a look at the young Earl as an imperial officer in India (1) and his very English American bride whose father suffered financial reverses before an early death (2). The book then discusses their courtship (3) and early marriage (4) as well as the birth of an heir to the house (5). The author then praises the efforts of Catherine and the Earl to save Highclere (6) and how they spent their time in the roaring twenties (7) in the glorious time of parties that marked the time (8). The author hints at trouble (9) and comments on the bittersweet nature of the later part of the marriage between Catherine and the Earl (10) before looking at two divorces and the marriage of Edward VIII to Wallis (11). After that there is a discussion of a time of recovery (12) as well as the coming disaster of World War II (13) and the experience of the estate and its owners at war (14). Churchill’s experience comes in for discussion (15) and then the author discusses how people came through darkness (16) and stood shoulder to shoulder (17) playing their own part in the dramas of the time (18) before discussing the end of the lives of both of the personages (19) and various celebrations of marriages and births (20) and then an epilogue.
It is hard to say that this book entirely succeeds. The author appears to want to focus on too many things at the same time in order to make this book a fully coherent one. Once the earl and lady divorced, their lives pursued generally separate lines and there were multiple estrangements within the family, including the the Earl’s mother’s remarriage to a soundrel, the Earl’s own unsuccessful amours including a broken marriage where a part-Jewish dancer fled to the United States because she was afraid that Hitler would win, and Catherine’s own two marriages, one of them leaving her a widow when her second husband died in World War II. Besides the colorful but frequently independent people the author tries to focus on, the estate itself also serves as an interesting character with various colorful servants and the high praise the estate received from Evelyn Waugh (who was apparently a relative of the Earl’s family) as well as other members of the aristocratic set who tended to marry among themselves and party at each other’s estates. It is certainly by no means a bad thing that the author views Highclere Castle as the model for Downton Abbey, certainly not for the money that the current Earl and his lady seek to gain from tourism and book sales, I imagine.