Monday, September 15, 2014

Non-Fiction Review: Lady Catherine and the Real Downton Abbey

 Sometimes the facts are even more extraordinary than the fiction...

This book tells the story of Lady Catherine, a beautiful American girl who became the chatelaine of Highclere Castle, the setting for Julian Fellowes' award-winning drama Downton Abbey.

Charming and charismatic, Catherine caught the eye of Lord Porchester (or 'Porchey', as he was known) when she was just 20 years old, and wearing a pale yellow dress at a ball. She had already turned down 14 proposals before she eventually married Porchey in 1922. But less than a year later Porchey’s father died suddenly, and he became the 6th Earl of Carnarvon, inheriting a title and a Castle that changed both their lives forever.

Lady Catherine and the Real Downton Abbey
The Countess of Carnarvon (2013). [Genre: Biography] 
Source: I recieved a copy of this title for review thanks to the publisher via BookBridgr. I recieved no other form of compensation and all opinions are my own.

Funnily enough, I don't even watch Downton Abbey. I watched the first couple of seasons and then never caught up. But I was in the mood for an interesting biography, and recently visiting Chatsworth has renewed my interest in the history of the UK's historic homes, so when Lady Catherine and the Real Downton Abbey crossed my radar I was happy to pick up. Written (or possibly ghost written) by the 8th Countess of Carnarvon, it follows the family of the 6th Earl (her husband's grandfather) through the first half of the 20th Century.

Unfortunately I can find very little good to say about this book. It just rubbed me up the wrong way for multiple reasons. Firstly, there is surprisingly little said about the actual family and their lives at Highclere. Rather the focus seems to be a general overview of the time period (World Wars etc) from the perspective of the British aristocracy, in which the Carnarvon's serve as a convenient thread to tie things together. This would be entertaining enough maybe for someone with no knowledge of the time period, but I found it a bad (I'll get to that) rehashing of widely known facts. In some chapters more time is spent on other members of high society, such as the Duff Coopers, than the Carnarvons. It also annoyed me that the more 'distasteful' aspects of the Carnarvon family history in this generation were glossed over. For example, I have very little knowledge of the Carnarvon family, but did know that Lady Catherine (who is according to the title, the main character) had mental health problems resulting in multiple breakdowns. In the book, these episodes are described fleetingly and glossed as exhaustion etc.

I could perhaps have written these inaccuracies off as the bias of personal history if the text wasn't dotted with historical misconceptions and inaccuracies in general. Some of the mistakes here are just unbelievable e.g. claiming Kitchener was killed at the Battle of Jutland (he was killed five days after said battle ended, in an unrelated incident, a fact Wikipedia will happily tell you with more accuracy). Others are downright offensive. As a New Zealander, I found the claim that Britain fought WWII alone after the fall of France (before joined by Russia and the USA) particularly problematic.

Finally, the writing is really not the best. In some places, the story barely holds together coherently. Other members of British high society enter and exit the story at whim, with no explanation of who they are or how they relate to the Carnarvons. People are referred to by various, ever-changing nicknames. Timelines are muddled, as we follow one character and then start again ten years previously with another. It's just a bit all over the place.

Overall? Lady Catherine and the Real Downton Abbey had real potential and it's a shame it fell so flat. There are certainly far better books out there about the time period, and I suspect one wouldn't have to do much digging to find far better (and more honest) books about the Carnarvons.

1 star

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