The house known to the world as Downton Abbey is in real life called Highclere Castle and is the home of the Carnarvon family. Lady Fiona, the current Countess of Carnarvon beliefs her predecessors are every bit as interesting as the characters of Downton Abbey and has brought them to the limelight in two books: Lady Almina and the real Downton Abbey, about the 5th Countess and her efforts during the First World War and now there is also Lady Catherine, the Earl and the real Downton Abbey about Catherine, the 6th Countess.
Catherine Wendell was an American socialite who caught the eye of Lord Porchester (Porchey), the heir to Highclere. They married in 1922 and within a few years become the young Lord and Lady Carnarvon after the unexpected death of the previous Earl. The 1920's were a difficult era for the landowning class in Britain, many great houses fell and many fortunes declined, but Catherine and Porchey, through a combination of luck and difficult decisions, managed to maintain Highclere for the future. In the 1920's and 1930's, Catherine and Porchey welcome many people to their beautiful home, among others royalty, famous writers, actors and musicians and the rest of English high society. But at the same time the world inches towards a new war, the marriage between Catherine and Porchey seems to crumble.
As a fan of Downton Abbey, I was very interested to read this book about the real people who lived in this house we've come to know so well. Lady Catherine, the Earl and the real Downton Abbey is the story of Catherine Wendell and Henry 'Porchey' Carnarvon, the 6th Earl and Countess of Highclere and their life in the '20s, '30s and '40s. Lady Fiona went through her family's archive and paints a very detailed picture of the life of this couple, from the layout of their days, the clothes they wore to the people they entertained. Through these many contacts, the book is just as much a story about the English high society during this time period as it is about Catherine and Porchey themselves. The Carnarvons interacted with many famous people, including royalty (Prince George, the Duke of Kent) and politicians (a young Winston Churchill). This makes Lady Catherine... a colourful read, full of 'aha' moments.
The book also clearly shows the changes in society from the early 1920's to just after WWII. Subjects touched upon are among others the changing role of women and the way the life of the landed gentry changed. Because the book contains so much interesting general information about this period in British history, Lady Catherine... is wonderful reading material for every fan of period dramas taking place in the first half of the 20th century. The book made me remember and better understand scenes from several period dramas I watched.
Unfortunately, because of the multitude of subjects, the book can also feel a little fragmented and more a summing up of information than a story. This also means that though we learn a great deal about the life of Catherine and Porchey, we don't get to know them as persons very well, they remain a bit aloof. Lady Catherine... never becomes dry however, the writing style of Lady Fiona has a pleasant flow to it. One other thing I found unfortunate in this book was the way it raced through the '20s and '30s to make more room for the description of Catherine and Porchey's life during WWII. Ofcourse WWII is endlessly interesting, but I would have liked to learn more about the (changing) life of the gentry in the earlier decades, a subject for which this book was a great candidate to elaborate on.
In summary, Lady Catherine... has some flaws, but is a really great book for every fan of Downton Abbey and every Anglophile and history lover in general.
I received an ebook version of this book from NetGalley and the publisher Crown Publishing in exchange for an honest review. Lady Catherine.. will be available from 29 October onwards.