on 26 October 2013
The basis of this elegantly written sketch on the life and times of Catherine Wendell, the Sixth Countess of Carnarvon - with a fleeting glance at Tilly Losch, the other Sixth Countess- is that it's another Highclere spin off to cash-in on its television fame. Both women married Henry, ( better known as Porchey Carnarvon) the Sixth Earl, who spent his life hunting, shooting and flirting.
The Earl was a rascal who rode race horses and was an over active sex pest to womankind. The Carnarvons display courage in declaring the American born Lady Catherine had a drink problem with bouts of depression and despair.
Having made a close study of Catherine's life ( and spoken with people who knew her) I conclude that it is not as simple as that. The reasons for Catherine almost never being sober are complicated and alas not well enough explained here.
The ghost writer could have improved the reader's understanding of Porchey living with Catherine's drink issue by veering away from the copious and meaningless references to the Duff Coopers in the book ( since neither Diana nor Duff make any worthwhile reference to Highclere in their letters/ memoirs/ diaries ) and instead draw ideas from Debo Devonshire's worthy and compelling account of her husband, Andrew Cavendish's darker moments of being heavilly drink infused in the excellent book, Wait For Me!
I know precisely what Catherine confided to Almina ( the Fifth Countess, Porchey's mother ). From that account there are stark differences ( not tackled here ), Catherine carried burdens including the horrors of a shattered childhood after her father died suddenly when she was aged eleven.
From Almina viewing the attractive, reverential, refugee, Catherine, first as a gold digger ( which she certainly was, she was skint before marriage to Porchey ) the two women found an enmity, against the same foe, Porchey, they became life long friends and allies and shared secrets and lies.
Married off to the Carnarvon heir, in 1922, Porchey's serial infidelities gave further just cause for Catherine's fall into inebriation, inflamed by his abuses too ( he repeatedly nagged and slagged her off), that detail is missing from the narrative, although the inferences of bullying are there, and that is of some merit.
Catherine's own dreadful health issues are sidelined. There is a reference in the book to the glorious years of 1926 and 1927 asserted as the marriage's happiest period but in fact this was when Catherine suffered a complete nervous breakdown and was treated for serious gynaecological problems by the famous Leeds surgeon Sir Berkeley Moynihan, requiring months in a Swiss sanatorium to recuperate.
The Carnarvons are entitled to say that another reason for Catherine's depression was the sudden loss of the 28year-old Reggie Wendell, her jobless brother ( a betting chum of Porchey's); that grief inevitably hit her ( and others ) very hard. But the actual event of Reggie's pitiful death scene at Highclere Castle is not accurately recorded in the book and the people involved and chronology has been altered or those who compiled this were not aware ( which is even more damning on the research process as a whole) of the very full and frank account from Mary Van der Woude (a Wendell cousin who was actually present when Reggie slipped into oblivion )). Mary's letters to her mother are held by the wonderful Portsmouth Athenaeum in the State of Maine -USA - where many of the remarkable Wendell family papers can be found, ( as well as at Harvard University).
Sadly ( despite the combined resources of the Highclere Archives, their family, an international publisher, a ghost writer, archivists and researchers) many of the other central particulars linking the story together are unsound, even some shocking errors including a rewrite of history which claims that Lord Kitchener died at the Battle of Jutland but which was over before the ship HMS Hampshire he was travelling on, hit a mine and sunk !
A similar sloppy error can be found in a reference to the reception after Catherine married a second time in 1938. One of the hosts, Percy Griffiths, is mentioned as taking part in fact fell off a horse and died the previous year!
Good prose masks many howlers as does a Readers Digest version of some 20th century history frolics with an irksome tendency to sweep too many irrelevant people and places with an unnecessary timeline of the non- players in the dull tales of Prime Ministers, and seedy diplomats downwards including an appalling chunk of inflated Porchey history on the Abdication crisis ( where Porchey claims fame in his wildly inaccurate memoirs which are repeated, but is just as inaccurate as they was when he regaled them to his ghost writer, Barry Wynne. in 1976 and on the Michael Parkinson Show).
This extra data pads out the book but it will not appeal to the common herd ( as Almina, the Fifth Countess dubbed those beneath her ) : those who follow Downton Abbey, who either lust or are shocked over rape and drugs and parlour games in and out of jazz clubs in coat tails or corsetry ) and it all spoils the plot, for Catherine's story is worth telling, but she was ( like Almina ) no angel, another flaw in the book, since her infidelities ( that were a clamour for genuine love ) or her irresponsible gambling excesses ( much to Porchey's horror and reprimands, and he bet foolishly too ), or Catherine spiting him by bedding several famous historical figures, of course that gets left unmentioned de facto but can be inferred from the dramatis persona, if the reader is smart enough to see through the veneer. Against the odds too Catherine made a passable Highclere chatelaine, she had good taste and style in fashion trends and make up innovations of the age. She was a good looking woman her whole life, despite the knocks and the fact that she felt despised and humiliated by Porchey and was crippled emotionally by a perceived embarrassment possessed by her own son. Catherine was left out in the cold especially when the young Lord Porchester ( later the Seventh Earl ) walked high with Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret Rose. The bankrupt granny, Almina, was also snubbed by the House of Windsor. Almina snubbed back!
Some parts of the book are adequate and praiseworthy. Catherine's loss of her second husband Geoffrey Grenfell is moving and well captured. The interesting testimony of servants and their fate in war time and peace is fascinating and a redeeming feature of the book is there are some wonderful photographs.
Lady Almina gets heroic coverage- but it's not always accurate. By the way, she was NOT an American, she was born in London, in Bayswater! Nor did she take two days to reach Egypt in 1923, when Lord Carnarvon lay poleaxed, awaiting death. Nor did she travel all the way out there in a by-plane ! The plane came down in France and Almina ( after she took ill) had to continue by rail, ship and rail again before reaching the Continetal Hotel, Cairo. This pilgrimage was not an expression of love ( Almina was always afraid of Carnarvon, she never loved him) it was the action of a nurse, who had saved lives of men in the Great War in her nursing homes, she knew she could help end Lordy's suffering and did just that.
The lethal details of the decades of vileness between Almina and her son Porchey is not surprisingly massaged out of the book. Incidentally, Almina's second husband, Colonel Dennistoun did not break his hip nor was he in a wheel chair at least until the mid 1930s when Almina bought him a motorised chair to sail his miniature boats at Hove and Brighton and on the Solent. Almina's collection of photographs of the Colonel show him walking unaided to and from their homes at Temple Dinsley and Eastmore, Isle of Wight until 1935-6. She married him because he was useful to her purpose of money laundering the hundreds of thousands of pounds left to her by her guardian, Alfred de Rothschild in assets at his town house at 1, Seamore Place, which Almina used as her main home ( not Highclere ), from 1919 . Moreover ( as can be gleaned from the Court evidence in Denniston v Dennistoun in 1925 ) Almina first met the Colonel in 1922, when the Fifth Earl was still very much alive.
The primary source of the present narrative appears to be the Visitor's Book at Highclere Castle ( and a sprinkling of family letters ) and this limits it's scope; as a result it's top heavy with dullness and streams of dull house party guests, horse racing and shooting chums of Porchey. The ubiquitous mention of Prince George ( PG) ( later Duke of Kent who was killed in 1942) is curious and needs more conclusion. PG was as frequent a presence at Highclere Castle as Prince Victor Duleep Singh was at the time of the Fifth Earl, the generation before. The reasons are not properly identified for its possibly similar an astounding likeness to Duleep's purpose of saving the Carnarvon blood line. The Sixth Earl's successful career as a jockey and horse breeder would have been good to see breached , as well as more on his war time exchanges with his son Porchester in the very interesting and entertaining Carnarvon Letters, published in 1992.
Catherine's pedigree ( which is triumphantly matched into American history and well known figures at that, with a family tree to show them off, well, that's fine ) but her childhood ( with her siblings and Wendell grandmother) in New York and in Kitterey, near Portsmouth, New Hampshire, USA gets only a few lines as does her important developmental years at the home of the Griffiths family ( who were well to do cousins of Catherine's mother, Marian ) at Sandridgebury, Sandridge, St Albans, Hertfordshire where her mother ( a remarkable marriage fixer to equal Dolly Levi ) was given a roof over her head in 1911 after sensibly fleeing with her four children far away from her late husband's creditors. The part the Griffiths' played in Catherine's life is insufficiently chartered.
We are also left knowing very little ( or anything that is reliable ) about Catherine's colourful dad, Jacob Wendell Jnr, ( a businessman turned actor in New York), his rogue gene pool, his influences upon her, or follow up of his other daughter, Philippa, Catherine's younger sister who went on to be the 12th Countess of Galloway. The book is quite wrong in recording Randolph Stewart ( Philippa's only son, the present 13th Earl of Galloway ) as being an epileptic. They can't bring themselves to say ` schizophrenic' but is a more accurate term. I've talked to friends of Randolph. Moreover, his whole life ( in the book : An Unlikely Countess Lily Budge and the 13th Earl of Galloway:) was ruined after his parents forced him to be lobotomized. Catherine was his godmother, she could not do anything to stop the butchery that still haunts this poor wretch daily.
The Highclere book ends suddenly in 1945 before so much else befalls the main characters. Is Catherine ( saved it seemed by a conversion from alcoholism to Roman Catholicism) destined to spend her Christmases at retreats as plain `Mary Herbert' among the Bethany nuns? Does she live happy ever after, or not? After the Tanis Guinness affair ( a girl whom Porchey attempted to marry ( even before divorced from Catherine : a story well told in the book ) who else does Porchey try to line up as his next duped Countess? How were Porchey and Catherine's last days spent, in more than just one sentence, please!!! And what of dear old Tilly Losch, the dancer who married Porchey ( for hard cash and a wobbly coronet ) in 1939, what became of the dancing Countess of Carnarvon? What a gal! You will have to look elsewhere for the answers!
Does this current book leave one's appetite whetting for more? The answer, probably is yes and no. Yes, if it's more accurately drawn ( which would mean Olympic somersaults in parts in this and in the earlier book on Lady Almina ); but no, if it is all another contrived piece of too much hokum history with real ( or more like sugary ) pieces thrown into a sponge cake like glace cherries. There are not always happy endings, Downton shows us this bitter truth well. Whilst this text is as craftily worked as a Downton Abbey script the real truth ( they keep telling us it is here but isn't, not in total ). That disturbing, hidden truth is even more astonishing.
There the courage shown initially in revealing Catherine's drink problem ends!
Overall, I found the book readable as a piece of writing but on facts as difficult as a gobstopper to swallow whole. The poor research is bad show given the extent of the resources available to the Carnarvon and publisher's army of backroom workers. The book is no more than a quick fix on Catherine's life. As with its earlier title on Almina, another Carnarvon Countess there are misdemeanours in the story telling and they know it! The sloppiness goes all the way to the end with Catherine's age at death being given as 79 (in fact she was 76). I would have been more than happy to co-operate to ensure that all the errors were expunged.