Lady Catherine, the Earl, and the Real Downton Abbey tells the story behind Highclere Castle, the setting for Julian Fellowes’s Emmy Award-winning PBS show Downton Abbey, and the life of one of its most famous inhabitants, Catherine Wendell. In this transporting companion piece to the New York Times bestseller Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey, Catherine, a beautiful and spirited American woman who married Lady Almina’s son, the man who would become the 6th Earl of Carnarvon, presides over the grand estate during a tumultuous time for the British aristocracy. Following the First World War, many of the great houses of England faded as their owners fortunes declined in the new political and social world of the 1920s and 1930s. As war loomed, Highclere’s survival as the family home of the Carnarvons was again in the balance—as was peace between the nations of Europe.
Using copious materials—including diaries and scrapbooks—from the castle’s archives, the current Countess of Carnarvon brings alive a very modern story in a beautiful and fabled setting, paying particular attention to the staff who provide Highclere Castle with continuity between generations.
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Read an Excerpt
India, March 1923
It was a stifling afternoon at the Wheeler Polo Club in Meerut, northern India. The waves of heat still distorted the view over the five first-class polo grounds, but Catherine was much relieved that the most oppressive part of the day was over. She was sitting on a white-canopied dais with the Viceroy, Lord Reading, and Lord Inchcape, the chairman of the P&O line, their wives, Lady Reading and Lady Inchcape, and some other friends. Behind them, on the long, whitewashed verandahs, several hundred of the team members' families and guests were watching the afternoon's match.
Catherine's husband, Lord Porchester, was playing number two and the game was level. She had never seen a polo match until she arrived in India two months ago, although her husband, a keen rider, played well. It was part of army life in a cavalry regiment. There were other amusements, beyond the polo grounds was a racecourse and her husband--who was known to family and friends all his life as Porchey--also enjoyed plenty of snipe, duck and black partridge shooting with his fellow officers.
Catherine was a favourite with all Porchey's friends. Very pretty, with an entrancing smile, she was flirtatious and fun. She was always impeccably stylish in the latest fashions. Even sitting under the huge canopy she would wear one of her charming wide-brimmed hats to protect her complexion from the relentless sun. March was not the hottest month in Meerut by any means; Catherine knew it would become uncomfortable as the spring turned to summer. But it was so beguiling, so different from the narrow grey skies between the houses in Mayfair, London. She loved the scents of the great Neem trees, the different herbs and spices that flavoured the air and the vastness and colours of India. It was all a world away from her experience.
Despite playing a significant part in the British Army during the First World War, time had stood still for the Army of British India. The cavalryman reigned supreme and his regiment trained and drilled in between dressing for supper and dining off silver plates in full mess kit. Servants were legion. Each officer occupied a bungalow with his wife and family and was attended by a khitmatgar (butler) and a bhisti (bearer). Catherine was born in Maine and had spent her first twelve years in New York and New Hampshire. Now she was adjusting to a very different environment, with its Old World customs, its bougainvillea-filled gardens and manicured lawns that had to be watered carefully every day.
It was the last chukka and Lord Porchester's stick tangled with an opponent's, but he managed to push the ball towards the mouth of the goal. For a moment it seemed to hesitate, but good luck spun it over the line. Catherine leapt up, smiling and clapping with excitement. When he came to write his memoirs, more than forty years later, Porchey recalled his moment of triumph. 'My beloved wife Catherine was probably the most excited of our many supporters.' There was tremendous applause. The exhausted teams presented themselves to the Viceroy and Catherine smiled proudly as her husband received a commemorative cup from Lady Mansfield. Her husband was not the bookish type like his father. He loved the racing and sporting worlds, was a noted horseman, a soldier and superb raconteur; he was enormous fun to be with.
A tall chuprassi, one of the messengers from the Viceroy's bodyguard, dressed in white and beturbaned, stepped forward to hand something to the dishevelled Lord Porchester. 'Sahib, a priority telegram from Egypt.'
Porchey turned to the Viceroy for permission to open it. 'Of course, dear boy. More news of your dear father and his wonderful discovery, I imagine.' Catherine smiled at her husband. Porchey's father, Lord Carnarvon, had uncovered the tomb of Tutankhamun just before Christmas; in fact, just before they sailed to India. It had been front-page news around the world and was the culmination of more than sixteen years of painstaking excavation in the hills around the Valley of the Kings in Luxor, Egypt.
Catherine liked her father-in-law very much. He was totally different to his son: he loved to pore over scholarly texts about Egyptology, was passionate about Egypt's culture and possessed one of the finest collections of Ancient Egyptian works of art in the world.
Porchey slipped open the telegram. Catherine stepped towards him as he stood motionless. Then he read aloud, 'From Sir John Maxwell, Commander in Chief Egypt to Sir Charles Monroe, Commander in Chief India. Urgent. Will you please expedite an immediate passage for Lord Porchester to the Continental Hotel Cairo, where his father Lord Carnarvon is seriously ill. Three months compassionate leave.'
Catherine leaned in to her husband. 'Darling, I am so sorry.'
The match was forgotten. Lord Inchcape cleared his throat. 'Look here Porchester, the Narkunda sails tomorrow and will be calling at Suez. She's full to the gunnels but I could instruct the Captain to have a junior officer's cabin made available.' Lord Reading turned to one of his ADCs and said, 'I've an idea. We should put Porchester on my train down to Bombay tonight; that will give him ample time to board the Narkunda.'
Porchey was tremendously grateful to them both. He turned to Catherine and the two of them went to sit down and discuss their plans. 'I hate to leave you alone here, darling, but I don't see we have any choice.'
Catherine had never seen her husband cast so low. She took his hand. 'I shall be perfectly fine, really. I'm sure all our friends will be a wonderful help. I'll make a start on closing up the house.' Porchey nodded. Though they didn't acknowledge it, they both felt that somehow he would not be coming back to India and that this part of their lives was over. Catherine would return to their bungalow, Bronx Hall, in Mhow. He would send a telegram as soon as he arrived in Egypt.
Porchey brightened. 'I'm sure my mother will already have set out for Cairo, so all may not be lost.' Almina, 5th Countess of Carnarvon, was an extraordinarily skilled and gifted nurse. If anyone could save her husband, she could.
Porchey arrived at the Continental Hotel a week later to find that his mother was already there. She had hired a small biplane and flown to her husband's bedside, accompanied by the family's personal doctor, Dr Johnnie. This was even better than Porchey had hoped for. His mother's determination never ceased to amaze him. She and Dr Johnnie had arrived in two days rather than the two weeks it would have taken by train and sea.
Porchey went straight to his father's rooms and tapped on the door. A nurse drew him into the dimly lit space. Everything was quiet. She whispered to him, 'Thank goodness you've come, Lord Porchester. Your mother is exhausted. She's had several sleepless nights now and we've had to insist that she gets some rest.'
Porchey nodded. 'How is he? Can I see him?'
'Of course,' replied the nurse, 'though I'm afraid he may not recognise you.'
Porchey trod softly across to the bed. His father was unshaven and seemed so angular, his pulse visibly beating erratically. Porchey touched his hand, which felt burning hot. 'Papa, this is your son, Henry, I've come from India to see you.' His father's eyes turned towards him but they were blank. He seemed delirious. Porchey felt overwhelmed by sadness. He had been away at school, away at war and then away in India. Now he could feel that it was too late for both of them. Suddenly he felt exhausted.
That evening he had supper with his father's colleague, Howard Carter, and his sister Evelyn. Eve had been out in Egypt with their father for weeks and was already very strained by the extraordinary events that had overtaken the 5th Earl's investigations in the Valley of the Kings. Eve had been at his side to witness the momentous unsealing of Tutankhamun's tomb, an event that generated massive excitement all over the world. After nearly twenty years of excavations in the desert, the 5th Earl of Carnarvon and Howard Carter, the brilliant Egyptologist, had made a discovery that would rewrite historians' understanding of Ancient Egypt and fascinate people for generations to come. Now, just six weeks after stepping into the Shrine Room and Treasury, the first man to enter the tomb of the boy king in three thousand years lay desperately ill.
Porchey had hardly fallen asleep when he heard the knock. It was nearly two in the morning. One of the nurses put her head around his door. 'Lord Porchester, hurry. I'm so sorry, your father has just died. Your mother has closed his eyes and would like you to go in and say a prayer.'
Porchey scrambled into a dressing gown and headed for his father's rooms. Suddenly the hotel was plunged into darkness. Carefully he made his way along the corridor and into the suite. He could just make out his mother, on her knees at his father's bedside, crying softly. He knelt down beside her and put his arm around her as he offered a small prayer of his own. 'He fought so hard to live,' whispered Almina, between tears, 'but just at the end he said, "I have heard the call; I am preparing."'
Porchey stayed a few minutes and then decided to leave his mother alone. He retreated from the bedroom to the sitting room where Eve, Dr Johnnie and Howard Carter had gathered. Somebody had brought a torch. A few minutes later, much to their relief, the lights came on again. Porchey and Eve hugged one another. Everyone was desperately upset, their faces showing exhaustion and sadness. Each of them, in their different way, had loved the 5th Earl.
In the days to come, the world's newspapers would work themselves into a state of feverish excitement over the Earl's death. 'The curse of Tutankhamun', shrieked the headlines. The press took great delight in suggesting that at the moment of Lord Carnarvon's passing, the lights throughout Cairo had been extinguished by ghostly command of King Tut. The reality was more prosaic: power shortages were common in Cairo and the Earl had died of blood poisoning contracted from a mosquito bite that he had nicked while shaving. The cut festered in the Egyptian heat and the illness seeped steadily through his body.
Lord Porchester was about to assume the role and responsibilities to which he had been born. It was a terrible shock. He was just twenty-five years old and, though his father's health had never been robust, the 5th Earl was only fifty-six when he died. Lord Porchester had not expected to inherit for many years; he had just rejoined his regiment on the assumption that he had a long army career ahead of him. Porchey and Catherine had been married for less than a year and they must have expected that they had plenty of time to really get to know each other and establish themselves in their marriage before the duties attached to being the heads of the household claimed them.
Porchey sent a telegram to Catherine--their intuition had indeed been correct. She should sail for England as soon as possible. Though she had half expected this news, it must have been difficult to take in. In addition to the grief and the worry for her husband, Catherine had to prepare herself for a new life. She was no longer the wife of an army officer. Catherine had just become the chatelaine of Highclere Castle, one of the loveliest and most famous country houses in England. She and Porchey were now the 6th Earl and Countess of Carnarvon.
A Very English American
Catherine could never, as a child growing up in New York State, have expected to live in India, much less Highclere Castle. Then again, by the time she married Lord Porchester, she had already lived through a great deal of disruptive change. Catherine was the daughter of Jacob Wendell Jnr and his wife, Marian, nee Fendall, and had been born Anne Catherine Tredick Wendell on 25 November 1900 in a house called Willowbank in Kittery, Maine--one of the family's many homes. Her father wrote a teasing but evidently pleased-as-Punch letter to his Aunt Sallie to tell her the news. 'I don't know whether you'd call it a pretty baby or not: it reminded me more of a plucked turkey than anything else. Its eyes are blue and what hair it has is light. Marian is as happy as can be and delighted with her little daughter.'
Catherine was the third of four children and had two older brothers, Jacob and Reginald; five years later, she would also have a younger sister called Philippa. At the time of Catherine's birth, her family were, if not quite in the ranks of the American super-rich, then certainly extremely wealthy.
Her father, Jacob (Jac) Wendell Jnr, was born in 1869 into one of New York City's foremost families. The Wendells were of Dutch descent and among the original settlers of Manhattan Island. Catherine's paternal grandfather had increased his family fortune through trade, and her father had followed in his footsteps, making his own success by going into business with a college friend to form a railway supplies company.
Wendell Jnr seemed to be a chip off the old block: reliable and savvy as well as jovial company, a man beloved by his many friends. He was a prominent member of the Harvard class of 1891, and caroused with Mark Twain and RalphWaldo Emerson during his European tour after graduation. At the inaugural dinner of the Harvard Club of Rome in April 1892, he entertained these friends with comic songs and impressions that had them all in gales of laughter. He was excessively charming, witty, kindly and eligible, an al---together excellent match for Marian Fendall, who married him in her hometown of Washington DC on 16 April 1895.
Where the Wendells were an old family that had made money through business, the Fendalls could boast equally longstanding and even more illustrious lineage. Jac and Marian's wedding breakfast was held at the home of the bride's aunt, Miss Mary Lee Fendall. Catherine was descended on her mother's side from the Lee families of Virginia, which made her practically aristocracy in the United States. Her great-great-grandfather was Philip Richard Fendall, a cousin of Revolutionary War hero and eulogiser of George Washington, Henry Lee III. The Lee-Fendall clan was extensive and extensively involved in politics at the highest levels. The best known of all was Catherine's distant cousin, General Robert Lee, the commander of the Confederate Army and one of the most lauded military leaders in US history.
The marriage of Catherine's parents brought together two great families, and appears to have been, besides, a very happy one. As well as the house in Maine where she was born, Catherine grew up between her paternal grandparents' town house in New York City and Frostfields, her mother's country house in the tiny and picturesque town of Newcastle on the outskirts of Portsmouth, New Hampshire. The photos of Marian, Jac and their four children in the gardens at Frostfields show an informal group, seemingly caught in a moment between expeditions to play in the rock pools, or run down to the beach with the dogs. Frostfields was a modern seaside villa, imposingly large but not grand, unlike the New York headquarters of the Wendell family with its dark Victorian furniture and heavy drapes at the windows.
Table of Contents
Chapter 1 India, March 1923 1
Chapter 2 A Very English American 9
Chapter 3 The Girl in the Yellow Dress 23
Chapter 4 From Honeymoon to Highclere 37
Chapter 5 The Heir Is Christened 59
Chapter 6 Saving Highclere 69
Chapter 7 Life and Death in the Roaring Twenties 77
Chapter 8 Highclere in All Its Glory 89
Chapter 9 There May Be Trouble Ahead 111
Chapter 10 Bitter Sweet 127
Chapter 11 Two Divorces and a Wedding 143
Chapter 12 Recovery 157
Chapter 13 The Coming Disaster 177
Chapter 14 We Are at War 193
Chapter 15 Blood, Toil, Tears and Sweat 213
Chapter 16 Coming Through Darkness 231
Chapter 17 Shoulder to Shoulder 251
Chapter 18 To Play One's Part 269
Chapter 19 The Beginning of the End 285
Chapter 20 Celebrations 301
Picture Acknowledgements 325
Reading Group Guide
A captivating follow-up to the bestselling Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey, this is the story of Catherine Wendell, the American beauty who married the 6th Earl of Carnarvon and presided over Highclere Castle during the Jazz Age. Catherine first met Lady Almina’s son, Lord Porchester (Porchey), in Gibraltar, where she immediately caught the eye of the dashing twenty-four-year-old aide-de-camp. He was one of British society’s most eligible bachelors, and she was one of its favorite young ladies; she had already turned down several proposals.
The 5th Earl of Carnarvon died in Egypt not long after Porchey and Catherine’s 1922 wedding. Lady Catherine, the Earl, and the Real Downton Abbey captures the tumultuous transition as Porchey discovered how precarious his father’s financial situation had been. Just as the Crawley family must cope with financial jeopardy on the hit PBS show inspired by Highclere Castle, the 6th Earl was unsure if he could afford to keep the beloved family estate. The book captures his wrenching decision to auction off the castle’s most valuable assets, including the family pearls. Yet he was able to keep Highclere itself and maintain a modern version of his ancestors’ lifestyle.
With candor and sensitivity, the current countess of Carnarvon also captures the subsequent unraveling of Catherine and Porchey’s marriage. Drawing on the castle’s splendid archive—including diaries and scrapbooks—she then traces the tragedies and triumphs experienced by the family and staff as World War II erupted. Highclere Castle and the estate were turned into homes for evacuee children as well as lodging for soldiers, and the divorced Catherine and Porchey found common ground as their son, Henry, set off for the frontline. His sister, Penelope, along with their parents, volunteered for service on the home front.
A stirring portrait of history, Lady Catherine, the Earl, and the Real Downton Abbey will captivate your reading group. We hope the questions that follow will enrich your journey to this extraordinary time and place.
1. How does Lady Catherine’s world compare to the societies depicted in Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey? Who had the greater freedom—wealthy Almina or modern Catherine? What can both women teach us about resilience?
2. Downton Abbey’s characters cope with romantic rivalries and economic crises, just as Porchey and Catherine did. In what other ways does the PBS show echo the book? In what ways was life at Highclere Castle even more dramatic than at Downton Abbey?
3. How did Lady Catherine, the Earl, and the Real Downton Abbey enhance your understanding of the British experience during World War II? What historical details surprised you the most?
4. The author artfully weaves Henry’s frontline experience with Robert Taylor’s. How did World War II transform Britain’s social divisions? Who in your family was part of the Greatest Generation?
5. Catherine’s widowed mother decided to move her family to London, but Porchey’s new bride, Tilly, ensconced herself in the States. How did transatlantic connections shape the culture of the early twentieth century? How were the American and British identities perceived on both sides of the Atlantic?
6. In chapter fourteen, we learn about George, the valet and acting butler who was dismissed after shirking his duties and trying to have a taste of his lord’s lavish lifestyle. Compare him to Robert Taylor, whose lifelong career outside the military was to be a devoted servant at Highclere. If you had lived during that time period, which role would you have been more likely to take?
7. What did Porchey and Catherine ultimately seek in their other spouses? Why was Catherine able to find a match with a stable man who cherished her, while Porchey pursued women who could not commit to him?
8. Just as Lady Almina transformed Highclere Castle into a hospital for wounded officers during World War I, Porchey and Tilly saw the estate transformed into a shelter for children and, later, for soldiers’ quarters. Does this spirit of hands-on generosity exist among today’s upper classes?
9. Like Downton Abbey’s Robert Crawley, Catherine’s father lost his fortune by staking the family’s future in a single stock. On the other hand, Porchey’s investment in Pyrotenax helped secure his future. What do these decisions tell us about the balance of luck and wisdom in building—and keeping—wealth?
10. The book begins with depictions of an opulent life for Catherine and her children. It shifts to a life of service as each member of the family begins supporting the war effort. Despite the trauma of war, how was the family enhanced by the immersion in working-class duties?
11. The author reminds us that Catherine’s divorce stipulation secured Highclere Castle for her son, and for future earls of Carnarvon. In doing so, what did she preserve besides architecture and a place of shelter? What are the intangible benefits of maintaining the castle and its owner’s noble title?
12. What do you predict for the future of Britain’s aristocracy and the new generation of royals? Will their network be as powerful as Porchey’s friendships with future kings and queens?
Guide written by Amy Clements
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This was an interesting book. I think most Americans like the English way of life. Not necessarily to live it but just to read and watch it. I was always interested in Lord Carnarvon' s interest in King Tut but I dropped it at his death. Then along came Downton Abbey and the Lord and Lady Carnarvons come back into my life. This book doesn't hold back. You read some part of their lifestyle and you wish it was you. Then it gets serious and you are glad it's NOT you. Everyone should read this book and learn what being a Lord and Lady entails. I am glad I read about them. How about you?
This book is wonderful. It is even more interesting than Downtown Abbey because it is true. Strongly recommended!!
you'll thoroughly enjoy this book. You will get some real history and, besides that, it reads like a novel. Very entertaining.
This book was so full of emotions and surprises. Like the show I don't want the books to end! I was amazed how many people from history showed up at Highclere Castle.
This is an excellent book for those who really enjoy history. The book is very readable with many details regarding Highclere Castle and the people who lived in it. There are a few similar story lines in Downton Abbey whether intended or not. Well done!
Got very boring at times. Some of it was interesting.