Both books center around the Countess of the title. Lady Almina was the chatelaine during the first World War, and was the mother of the titular Earl of the second book. She was the natural daughter of Alfred de Rothschild and brought an influx of wealth and glamour to life at Highclere Castle. Her husband was the Egyptologist Earl of Carnarvon, who along with Howard Carter, discovered the tomb of Tutankhamen. Her daughter-in-law Catherine, is the focus of the second book, set during the 1920's and through World War II. Catherine and her husband "Porchey" are the grandparents of the current Earl of Carnarvon, (whose wife Fiona is the author of the series).
The real centerpiece of the books of course, is the fabulous Highclere Castle, much like the fictional Downton Abbey is that of the PBS series. The family sees itself as the stewards of an estate that has offered jobs, focus, and history for the surrounding countryside and England itself. When so many of the great houses have been lost, especially during the time frame of the two books, one has to admire the persistence and downright cleverness employed by the family in order to maintain and retain the magnificent estate.
But the lifestyle is the most intriguing facet of the story. Catherine Wendell was the daughter of an upper class American family living in reduced circumstances in London after World War I. Popular and pretty, she met and married Lord Porchester ("Porchey" to family and friends) and started her married life as the bride of an army officer stationed in India. Her father-in-law, the famous Lord Carnarvon (of the "curse of Tut" fame) died soon after, and the young couple took up residence at Highclere Castle, the seat of the Earls since 1679. They soon establish themselves as a part of the elegantly aristocratic set that included royalty, politicians, gadabouts and the fabulously rich. Racing, shooting weekends, and house parties are described in great detail, and vividly come to life.
One strength of the book is that the lives of the staff are also examined in great detail. In an age when all of the footman are called "Charles" despite their real names, it is a little touching (and hopeful0 to see how interwoven the lives and fortunes of the family and staff are. When Highclere Castle's existence is threatened due to the reckless spending of forefathers, and new taxes, the lifestyle and livelihood of the whole county are affected. The estate is saved, thanks to an influx of money by Almina, the sale of a number of art works, and the advancement of the racing stud by Porchey.
Of course, being down-on your-luck Highclere style is still pretty darn fabulous. This is not a story of scrimping and saving. Life at Highclere seems to be full of hunting, parties and trips abroad. Ultimately, wealth, birth and privilege do not completely protect one from sadness and loss. Having established himself as a bon vivant, Porchey also established himself as a womanizer, and the marriage with Catherine ended in 1936. She was devastated, turned to drink for solace, and remained fragile for some years, until a happier (albeit brief) marriage to Geoffrey Grenfell restored her self-esteem. She married Don Momand ten years after Geoffreys death, again happily. Porchey remarried Tilly Losch, the dancer, actor and choreographer , but not happily, and remained single thereafter, although not without companions.
Most interesting to me were the famous figures that flitted through the Carnarvon's life at Highclere. Prince George, the Duke of Kent was one of Porchey's best friends, as was the Duke of Marlborough, John Churchill-Spencer. Randolph Churchill (the son of Winston Churchill) was an intimate, and the young King Edward VII was part of their set before abdicating to marry Wallace Simpson. Evelyn Waugh and the Duff Cooper's were also visitors to the grand house. Porchey's second wife was Tilley Losch, an actress who brought a touch of Hollywood to Highclere, as did Catherine's mother who was close friends with Adele Astaire (now Lady Cavendish). Political figures, royalty, aristocrats and the wealthy are all a part of life at Highclere Castle.
Also interesting were the World War II stories. The years leading up to the war, the Blitz, and the first years of the War are brought vividly to life by the author. The effects of the war on Highclere are dramatic...it becomes a sanctuary for children from London who are escaping the bombs of London, a training facility, and farmed as a source of produce for the countryside. And the family and staff stepped right up to the challenges and sacrifices war demands. One staff member, the valet-turned-butler Robert Taylor, was a war hero whose romance and war exploits are recorded in detail.
The elements that make the TV Show Downton Abbey so fascinating are the same things that capture us in real life: the magnificent beauty of the home itself; the privileged lifestyle; the famous (and infamous) characters; the nostalgia for a time that is gone' and the just plain glamour of it all make this a most compelling read.
Paperback, 368 pages
Published October 29th 2013 by Broadway Books