Highclere Castle and the real family story behind Downton Abbey

My great-grandfather was a butler at the end of the nineteenth century. I like to think of him as a kind of Carson, the wise if somewhat stern Downton Abbey butler nostalgic for the traditions of yesteryear. So, when I was invited to read Lady Catherine, the Earl, and the Real Downton Abbey, I was intrigued.
For anyone who enjoys period drama like Downton Abbey, Lady Catherine, the Earl, and the Real Downton Abbey by Fiona J M Aitken, the 8th Countess of Carnarvon, is an interesting and  accessible read with many parallels between the Carnarvon and Grantham families.

It is an account of the life of an Anglo American — Catherine Wendell — who, through marriage, became the fifth Countess Carnarvon and for a time presided over Highclere Castle, now best known as the setting for Downton Abbey.

Catherine’s father in law, Lord Carnarvon, ran through a fortune funding Howard Carter’s archaeological exploits in Egypt and is remembered for the remarkable discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamen. His death left Catherine’s husband Porchey liable for massive death duties putting the castle and estate at risk.

Porchey and Catherine were both close to her brother Reggie who seemed to play a role in keeping the marriage stable. When Reggie died in 1928 their marriage hit a rocky patch. Porchey was frequently away from home and associated with other women, including a member of the Irish Guinness family. Perhaps not surprisingly the distance between Catherine and her husband ultimately led to divorce.

She had to leave Highclere Castle and subsequently married Geoffrey Grenfell in 1938 but was widowed just three years later when Grenfell lost his life in the war. Porchey also remarried but the two seem to have parted on amicable terms and remained friends throughout their lives.

Lady Catherine, the Earl, and the Real Downton Abbey is a gentle family account of life from another era and is nicely illustrated with photographs. I enjoyed it.

[Disclosure: An advance reader’s copy (ARC) was provided by the publisher free of charge for the purpose of this review.]

Gilded Lives, Fatal Voyage by Hugh Brewster

The fatal Titanic voyage continues to attract authors. There is something about the apparent gaiety and glitter of the years immediately preceding WW1 that is somehow alluring to contemporary readers — “a world both distant and near to our own” as Hugh Brewster puts it in the prologue to Gilded Lives, Fatal Voyage — The Titanic’s First-Class Passengers and Their World.

More than 100 years on from the loss of Titanic in April 1912, stories of her passengers continue to fascinate modern readers. Brewster focuses on Titanic’s first-class passengers — among them the celebrities of the day — from fashion designer Lucile, Lady Duff Gordon to tennis star, Karl Behr, from President’s aide Archie Butt to artist Frank Millet.

Some of the names are familiar — Astor, Ismay, Guggenheim — from movies like Walter Lord’s A Night to Remember and James Cameron’s Titanic — others perhaps less so, but the portraits presented by Brewster are immensely human and fascinating for the detail that they provide.

For a factual, historical book Gilded Lives, Fatal Voyage is a very engaging and fast read beautifully illustrated with photographs. Inevitably, the reader becomes come caught up in the drama of the sinking but Brewster maintains focus on the the individuals rather than on the ship and the book is particularly moving for what it has to say about the aftermath of the sinking and the glimpses it provides in the postscript, “Titanic Afterlives”.

Gilded Lives, Fatal Voyage: The Titanic’s first-class passengers and their world by Hugh Brewster is published by Broadway Paperbacks. ISBN 9780307984814; eISBN 9780307984715.