Award-winning British novelist Fay Weldon wrote the pilot screenplay for the original “Upstairs, Downstairs” and is herself the daughter of a housekeeper, which means that she knows her territory. Her new novel, “Habits of the House,” is the first volume in a new trilogy that mines the lives of those who live above and below stairs in a mansion in London’s Belgrave Square. This is the perfect read for fans of “Downton Abbey.”
“Habits of the House” introduces readers to the Dilberne family. Lord Robert, a friend of the pleasure-loving Prince of Wales is seeking a spot in the Cabinet even as unfortunate investments are about to plunge the family into financial ruin. His affairs are managed by Eric Baum, “a tall, thin, nervy young man,” who wants nothing more than to launch his wife Naomi into the rarified social sphere of the Dilbernes. This, he knows, will be an uphill battle:
As so often in this heathen land of ignoramuses, his race and religion told against him. The wealthy looked down their short, sharp noses and were happy enough to take advice and borrow money – though always reluctant to repay it – while feeling free to despise him for not being one of them. Thank God he was not.
Lady Isobel keeps the household running smoothly with the help of Grace, her Tennyson quoting lady’s maid. As the family financial picture looks increasingly precarious, Lady Isobel and Lord Robert look for salvation by hoping to arrange a suitable marriage for their son Arthur, who is perfectly happy running up tailor’s bills, tinkering with his car, and visiting his mistress Flora. (Their daughter Rosina is a freethinking young woman, who is unlikely to be married off without a major cash infusion.)
A wealthy bride for Arthur is essential for the Dilberne’s if they are to maintain status quo:
. . . they could offer the best shooting in the country and the best dinners in London; this was the true heart of London Society: the genuine thing; guests knew how to behave and could be trusted if ever a new acquaintance was to be made.
Fortunately, Minnie O’Brien, the less-than-virginal daughter of a Chicago meat baron, and her mother Tessa arrive in London in search of a titled husband. Could the very wealthy Minnie be the answer to the Dilberne family's prayers?
‘In suiting others we suit ourselves,’ said her daughter now, more blithely. ‘Arthur’s parents want him to marry someone rich, and I turn up. My parents want me married and settled down before I do something else dreadful, and he turns up. We are obviously made for each other. Fate has decreed it.’
Weldon laces her well-written story with wit and humor to fashion a richly entertaining comedy of manners and mores – both upstairs and down.
‘You’re a good woman, Grace,” said Tessa. ‘But what a world of lies this is!’
‘It’s how we all survive,’ observed Grace.
“Habits of the House” will leave you hungry for Weldon’s next installments.
“Habits of the House” is available on amazon.com and at your favorite New York bookstores.