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Final installment: 'The New Countess'

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The New Countess, a novel by Fay Weldon

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It’s June1905 and Lord Robert and Lady Isobel Dilberne are put on the spot by King Edward VII while at the races at Newmarket. After asking how the shooting might be at their country estate in the fall, the King makes a decision:

‘Then I’d like to visit you in mid-December,’ the King said. . . . ‘Would we be welcome, Lady Dilberne?’

‘But of course,’ said Isobel, faintly, 'we will be honoured.’

‘Not too big a party,’ said the King. . . .’How does the idea suit you, Alice? Bring George with you if necessary.’

Alice murmured that she too looked forward to it. Isobel did not. . . .

It was a nightmare. Less than six months to make Dilberne Court fit for a king. And worse, fit to survive the eagle eye of the King’s mistress.

The preparations for this visit occupy Lady Isobel for much of “The New Countess,” the third and final volume in Fay Weldon’s winning trilogy that began with “Habits of the House” and “Long Live the King.”

Weldon, who wrote the pilot episode for the original “Upstairs, Downstairs” mines much the same material here as she follows the lives of the aristocratic Dilberne family. Yet this final volume is at once funnier and sharper than its predecessors, while still chronicling the adventures and misadventures of the Dilbernes.

Lady Rosina returns from Australia a widow determined to publish a shocking study of the sex lives of aborigines. After feuding with her mother, she and her parrot Pappagallo decamp to the Fleet Street digs of Anthony Robin and his sister, Diana. (Anthony had shared the favors of Flora with Rosina’s brother Arthur prior to Arthur’s marriage.)

Her brother Arthur is preoccupied as ever with his motorcars, paying minimal attention to his wife Minnie and their two young sons – the heir and the spare. Minnie is frustrated by her mother-in-law’s insistence on having them be raised by the frightening and inept family Nanny, who insists on practically binding the boys' feet with too-tight shoes. Minnie thinks she has caught Arthur in a compromising situation with a female journalist. This misunderstanding leads her to kidnap her own children and flee to America, which is where she is when the King and his mistress Alice Keppel finally visit Dilberne Court.

No expense has been spared at renovating the ancient family manor, as Isobel has tried hard to capture what she thinks are the tastes and preferences of Mrs. Keppel.

What a charming, charming room, Isobel,’ said Alice Keppel, though in truth she thought it was perfectly dreadful. You could not, should not, try and teach these old houses to play new tricks. Better to leave them as they were, replace a worn rug or so, have a few old paintings cleaned, get rid of heavy Victoriana and leave the centuries to speak for themselves. But here were bare white walls, newly plastered, no central chandelier, the glare of modern lighting, family portraits replaced by strange modern ones, hideous yellow bamboo furniture, flower arrangements which turned out to be made of satin – vulgar, vulgar, vulgar – and more. . . .

This is great, good fun – think “Downton Abbey” with an edge. The shooting party takes a tragic and unexpected turn, which throws the family into an uproar. In the end, life goes on and Weldon leaves the Dilberne clan in surprisingly good cheer, giving Pappagallo the last word: “Bless you all!”

“The New Countess” and the rest of Weldon's Dilberne trilogy are available on amazon.com and at your favorite New York bookstores.

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