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'Black Diamonds' review: A real-life Downton Abbey

The outdoor servants at Wentworth House in 1906.

The outdoor servants at Wentworth House in 1906. The house and the its owners, the Fitzwilliam family, are the subject of Catherine Bailey's "Black Diamonds: The Downfall of an Aristocratic Dynasty and the Fifty Years That Changed England" (Penguin, January 2014). Credit: Roy Young

BLACK DIAMONDS: The Downfall of an Aristocratic Dynasty and the Fifty Years That Changed England, by Catherine Bailey. Penguin, 518 pp., $17 paper.

Downton Abbey, played on TV by Highclere Castle, is a pretty grand place. Yet it's merely a cottage when compared with Wentworth Estate, the largest privately owned house in Britain. If Wentworth doesn't have the renown of Chatsworth House or Blenheim Palace, two of England's most famous country houses, its immensity speaks for itself: five miles of passageways, some 365 rooms, and a facade more than 600 feet wide. (Wentworth is so big that some guests would leave a trail of cracker crumbs just to avoid getting lost.) The dimensions of the house's stunning Marble Hall -- its ceiling is 40 feet high -- are testament to Wentworth's spectacular dimensions.

Closed to the public, it is "England's forgotten palace," Catherine Bailey writes in "Black Diamonds," her chronicle of the illustrious family that once called Wentworth home. Built in the 18th century, the house was crown jewel of the Fitzwilliams, whose fortune was built on the coal mined from family lands in Yorkshire. It's a story rich in intrigue, scandal, family secrets, declines and falls.

But don't be misled by her subtitle: Bailey offers something much more than a fluffy aristocratic melodrama. We learn about the daily round at Wentworth, but Bailey takes us deep into the grimy, dangerous mines that kept the Fitzwilliams afloat. Her book branches out in all directions: at times she seems stranded between George Orwell's searing portrait of working class life, "The Road to Wigan Pier," and an issue of Country Life magazine.

Still, I read on with interest. At the center of the story are the last of the earls Fitzwilliam. The death of the sixth earl in 1902 saw the accession of his grandson, William Charles, to the title. But several family members of the family wanted nothing to do with the putative seventh earl, believing him to be a fraud, swapped in at birth. (His father was an epileptic, and was banished to Canada, where William Charles was born.) A mystery swirls around the identity of "Billy Fitzbilly," as he was known, but he was proved a fine earl, whatever the doubts about his real provenance.

He presided over his realm -- in addition to Wentworth, there was a mansion in Ireland, a 50-room house in London's Mayfair, and thousands of acres of land -- with a feudal sense of obligation. Though coal mining was dangerous work, the earl was a benevolent practitioner of a kind of genteel capitalism. "He saw himself as the custodian of a way of life. As radical as he was reactionary, he regarded it as his duty to wield his wealth and power with a conscience: to provide the best possible living and working conditions for the men he employed," Bailey writes. During a massive coal strike in 1926, which idled mines across Britain, the earl fed thousands of miners' children, and played polo with his men on Wentworth's grounds.

If the seventh earl was a bona fide country gentleman who had a horror of publicity, his son and heir, Peter, was a different story. Though he served with distinction in World War II, the eighth earl was a gamboling playboy who ran with the jet set. His charisma was irresistible: "Peter had all the charm in the world -- to a rather dangerous extent, really," said a friend.

His enthusiasms were gambling, horse racing and women. His affair with Kathleen "Kick" Kennedy, sister of JFK who set London society ablaze with her charm and fast ways, would prove tragic. Their romance was divisive: He was married, and her Catholicism was anathema. Kick's friends were horrified by her dalliance with the roguish earl. But his passions were reckless, as was his decision to fly her off on a jaunt to southern France in 1948: It was the precipitating act of the end of the Fitzwilliam line. A fierce storm had gathered over central France, but Peter charmed -- or bribed -- the pilot to fly on. The private plane crashed into a mountain; there were no survivors.

A crisis ensued after Peter's death. He had no male heirs, and the Fitzwilliam line was perched on the edge of extinction. The title passed to a grandson of the sixth earl, but he was a hopeless alcoholic with none of the dash of Peter (or his father). Two cousins battled for title of the 10th earl, who would prove to be the last. The house was leased to a school and then passed into various hands. Its current owner, the reclusive Clifford Newbold, about whom little is known, has opened it to the public. A restoration campaign is underway to ensure that Wentworth lives on, unlike the illustrious earls who once lived there.

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