Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Black Diamonds: The Downfall of an Aristocratic Dynasty and the Fifty Years That Changed England by Catherine Bailey

"In the crush of mourners, one man walked alone behind the glass hearse. William Charles de Meuron Wentworth-Fitzwilliam - "Billy Fitzbilly", as the minors called him - or Lord Milton, as his courtesy title styled him - Was William." Opening sentence 

Synopsis:  From the New York Times–bestselling author of The Secret Rooms, the extraordinary true story of the downfall of one of England’s wealthiest families

Fans of Downton Abbey now have a go-to resource for fascinating, real-life stories of the spectacular lives led by England’s aristocrats. With the novelistic flair and knack for historical detail Catherine Bailey displayed in her New York Times bestseller The Secret RoomsBlack Diamonds provides a page-turning chronicle of the Fitzwilliam coal-mining dynasty and their breathtaking Wentworth estate, the largest private home in England.

When the sixth Earl Fitzwilliam died in 1902, he left behind the second largest estate in twentieth-century England, valued at more than £3 billion of today’s money—a lifeline to the tens of thousands of people who worked either in the family’s coal mines or on their expansive estate. The earl also left behind four sons, and the family line seemed assured. But was it? As Bailey retraces the Fitzwilliam family history, she uncovers a legacy riddled with bitter feuds, scandals (including Peter Fitzwilliam’s ill-fated affair with American heiress Kick Kennedy), and civil unrest as the conflict between the coal industry and its miners came to a head. Once again, Bailey has written an irresistible and brilliant narrative history.

Review by Mirella Patzer

Ever since the debut of the popular British TV series, Downtown Abbey, the public has been fascinated with the plight of many aristocratic families as they struggled with societal changes that came about in the aftermath of World War II. This non-fiction book delves deep into one such family and the branches of its family tree.

They say that truth is stranger than fiction. It is very true when it comes to the Fitzwilliam family. There are many storylines in this very true story, the kind of stuff that would make any fiction novel ripe with suspense. First there is the one of the heir who suffers with a mysterious illness (epilepsy) which the family tries to hide. There is a love story between Peter Fitzwilliam and Kathlen Kennedy of the famed American Kennedys that cause deep family rifts due to religious differences. Of course there is an illegitimate birth of a boy when one of the male family members impregnates a serving girl, and the slicing of the child's tongue to impede him from speaking. And did I mention the court battle over who is the true heir, and the doubts of his true identity due to the fact he was born in the wilds of Canada, or how one member was forced into an insane asylum? 

Author Catherine Bailey has done a tremendous amount of research and presents it in great detail and imn a very interesting way in this fascinating book.There are numerous historical pictures that help visualize some of the people and occurrences in this factual story. Although it is not fiction, the book is written in a manner that reads easily and is very enjoyable. Definitely fascinating from cover to cover.  

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