Wentworth is today a crumbling and forgotten palace in Yorkshire. Yet just a hundred years ago it was the ancestral pile of the Fitzwilliams – an aristocratic clan whose home and life were fuelled by coal mining.
Black Diamonds tells of the Fitzwilliams’ spectacular decline: of inheritance fights; rumours of a changeling and of lunacy; philandering earls; illicit love; war heroism; a tragic connection to the Kennedys; violent death; mining poverty and squalor; and a class war that literally ripped apart the local landscape.
The demise of Wentworth and the Fitzwilliams is a riveting account of the aristocratic decline and fall, set in the grandest house in England.
I live around a 10 minute drive away from Wentworth so I have visited the park and the house; unfortunately Wentworth Woodhouse isn’t open to the public so it can be only be admired from a short distance in the park. Living so close to the majority of the places mentioned in Black Diamonds gave it another dimension for me, but regardless of where you live, this is a book that can be enjoyed by anyone.
The book focuses on the Fitzwilliams family that lived in the house. The vast majority of the Fitzwilliams’ paperwork and correspondence was destroyed long before Catherine Bailey penned this book, so in places the history is a little patchy, but she has done an excellent job of piecing together the details and manages to write about several generations at once without it becoming confusing.
Wentworth Woodhouse was once famed for having the longest facade in Europe and a room for every day of the year. It’s now kept shut to the public and is a forgetton gem that has been left to crumble. Had it been maintained there is no doubt that it would be as well known and loved as houses such as Chatsworth and Longleat House, but Bailey does a great job of describing all the details of the house which easily allows the reader to imagine what the house was like in its heyday.
Several other stories have been woven around that of Wentworth, such as miners’ strikes and the the connection to the Kennedy family, which are all very interesting in their own right. However, at times it felt like Bailey was overcompensating for the lack of surviving Fitzwilliams history by spinning out these separate stories for a little too long. I never found the book boring or a drag to read, I just feel that some people may not be expecting this.
The demise of such a beautiful place is quite sad to read about, especially to a local person, and it’s a shame that more wasn’t done to preserve the grandeur of the house. I can appreciate that Catherine Bailey did her very best to piece together the history of the Fitzwilliams with what little information still survives, but it can become frustrating to not learn more about the family, which in places are described in a lot of detail. I still found Black Diamonds highly interesting for its historical content, its portrayal of what was once a very prominent family, and for its relevance to my local area – I was just left wishing that all the paperwork from the Fitzwilliams hadn’t been destroyed.