This follow-up to the chronicle of Lady Almina is a stunner. In Lady Catherine, the Earl and the Real Downton Abbey the (current) Countess of Carnarvon weaves the story of the Carnarvon family with significant events that leaves readers with a greater appreciation of one family’s contribution to history. There are times that I had to remind myself that this was, in fact, a real family and not some fantastical fiction.
What was so different about this story, centered around Lady Catherine and Porchey (6th Earl of Carnarvon), was the vast changes that occurred in the tradition of great English houses during this generation. Two World Wars changed the way that society viewed status and income, altering the fates of those upstairs and downstairs.
The dynamics of the home were not the only things to shift during this era. From the start of this novel, the courting between Catherine and Porchey, we see that customs are becoming much more liberal when compared to Almina’s story. The couples eventual divorce is also a major revision of the expectations of a high class family. Their divorce highlights the major gender inequalities still inherent in society at the time when we learn that Catherine’s first real home is bought through her settlement earnings.
World War II takes center stage in this book. The Countess often gives enough context to understand the war beyond what the family is experiencing, but never takes us too far out of the main stories she is telling. She creates an excellent balance between individual biographical information and a sweeping historical background.
I think one of the strengths of this book is how well it shows the reordering of society during a critical period in history. Because the Countess includes the stories of the Carnarvons, their friends and their employees readers can track the changes going on through multiple classes. I also appreciate that she has chosen to focus on the wives in this (her) family. Often history has focused on the men, but the women have shown themselves to be equally, if not more so, dynamic and fascinating.