I’ve just returned from another trip to Downton Abbey. The real Downton Abbey that is, Highclere Castle.
(I feel like I should point out that I meant a bookish trip, not an actual trip to visit Highclere Castle like it’s in my neighbourhood.)
At the beginning of this year, as I was waiting for the 3rd season to premier on this side of the world, I decided to spend some time in the real Downton Abbey, courtesy of the current Countess of Carnarvon. Capitalizing on the popularity of the show, she wrote a book about Almina, the Countess of Carnarvon around the same time as the show takes place.
Well that book must have been popular because she has followed it up with another one, Lady Catherine and the Real Downton Abbey. I’ve seen it listed on Goodreads as Lady Catherine, the Earl and the Real Downton Abbey and that strikes me as a much more appropriate title for this book. While the first book really mostly was about Almina and her incredible life, Lady Catherine was a much more passive Countess ergo, not as interesting to read about. The current Countess wisely chose to make this book more about the time.
Catherine Wendell was born into a wealthy American family in 1900. She lived a privileged lifestyle, descended from some of America’s “best” families until she was 10, when her father lost pretty much everything and decided to try his hand at…acting. He was dead two years later and her mother moved her family to England to be near some cousins. Catherine met Lord Porchester (Porchey), the future 6th Earl of Carnarvon, fell in love and married him. They had two lovely children, and while the responsibilities of running Highclere fell to them rather sooner than they expected (the 5th Earl died in 1923 about six months after Catherine and Porchey married) things were pretty decent.
Except that Porchey had a wandering eye. So they got divorced and Porchey was ever after plagued by his love affairs. Catherine married again right before the second world war but tragically her husband was killed in the early days of the war.
She spends quite a lot of time in convents, trying to get herself together after periods of intense stress. But while Almina made life happen, Catherine lets life happen, which is much less interesting to read about. Catherine’s children also, unbelievably, do everything they are supposed to. Her son does go to war and she’s (obviously ) terrified but he comes through more or less unscathed. Her daughter is lovely and affectionate and smart and marries appropriately. No scandal or anything. At least Almina was illegitimate and insanely wealthy.
The saving grace for this installment of life at Highclere was the window it gave of the time itself. The current Countess was able to get firsthand accounts from some of the people that had worked at Highclere at the time, and were able to give an idea of what it was like to have been young and alive at the time.
In the end, I liked Catherine and Porchey and their children but I’m glad that this book ended up being from the library. Although I will say that I liked this cover better than the first.