Arguably one of the most watched television shows in history, the smash hit, “Downton Abbey”, reveals the drama of the Grantham family. This story pales in comparison to the real-life one revealed by The Countess of Carnarvon in her recent portrait of Highclere Castle and its inhabitants in “Lady Catherine, The Earl, and The Real Downton Abbey” (Broadway Paperback Original: October 2013).
Lady Fiona Carnarvon (The Countess of Carnarvon), married the current Earl of Carnarvon in 1999. Ten years ago, the couple took over Highclere Castle where “Downton Abbey” is filmed and which serves as the historic inspiration for the show. Her book closely mirrors the current season of Downtown Abbey, which picks up with the Downton residents in 1922, the same year Catherine and Porchey married. Fans of the show and history buffs alike will delight in the new material unearthed here in the story of Lady Catherine.
“Lady Catherine, The Earl, and The Real Downton Abbey” tells the story of Catherine Wendell, an Anglo-American descendant of one of New York’s oldest families. While on holiday, in Europe, she catches the eye of the womanizing Lord Porchester. “Porchey”, as he was affectionately known, quickly marries the nineteen-year old Catherine and soon after, the unexpected death of his father leaves the newlyweds in charge of Highclere Castle. In their new role, the couple arranges for the sale of art and artifacts from the castle through an auction at Christie’s in an effort to find financial stability.
The book describes how Lady Catherine, plunged into the upper echelons of British society, attempts to follow in her mother-in-law’s footsteps, by running the manor home, attending to the needs of the staff and hosting friends and royals as she raises a young son and daughter at Highclere. While Catherine admires her predecessor’s example, she does not share her strong personality and zest for entertaining—nor, sadly, her happy marriage. Catherine is deeply affected by her husband’s many extramarital adventures and eventually, the indignity becomes too much to bear. She bravely dissolves her marriage and leaves Highclere to resettle in London as a divorcee with her two young children.
The fascinating real-life story continues with both Porchester and Catherine marrying others. Britain and Highclere become embroiled in the Second World War, as Catherine’s second husband joins the Navy, Porchester becomes an officer, and their son, Henry also serves. Highclere Castle doubles as military lodging and a refuge for evacuated children.
The Countess of Carnarvon, a professional historian, undertook exhaustive research of Highclere’s archives which contained countless letters, diaries and photographs.
Illustration courtesy of The Crown Publishing Group
Photo by Tobi Corney Photography
Carrie Coolidge is a Pursuitist contributor based in Manhattan. From 2009 to 2011, Carrie served as Co-Editor of Luxist, the luxury lifestyle website at AOL where she ran the Luxist Awards, a program that honored the very best in fine living. From 1996 to 2009, Carrie was a Staff Writer at Forbes magazine, where she covered real estate, personal finance and the insurance industry, among other areas. Carrie is also the author of six books, including "The Business of America is Business". Follow her on Twitter: @carriecoolidge