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.]