Weldon, Fay. Habits of the House.

London: Head of Zeus, 2012.

Most people will have forgotten (if they ever knew) that Fay Weldon wrote the pilot episode of the original Upstairs, Downstairs back in 1971. However, a fan of that series who picks up this book (the first volume of a trilogy) expecting more of the same is likely to be bemused. (Nice aristocratic word, that.)

The setting is the upper-class world of London in the fall of 1899, focusing on the middle-aged Earl and Countess of Dilberne, and their grown son and daughter, and on the supporting cast below stairs — but none of them is entirely what you might expect, though there are plenty of clichés to go round.

The earl, Robert Hedleigh, is a gambler with political ambitions, enormous debts, and a huge sense of entitlement. His wife, Isobel, whom he married for her money, is the bastard daughter of a self-made coal baron from Newcastle, snobbish about the mere middle classes despite her own origins and incapable of consideration for anyone else. Their daughter, Rosina, is an overly tall intellectual who alternates between awareness of the real world and whining naiveté, and is not above ratting out her brother to the police for philosophical reasons. And their son, Arthur, is a hypocritical and self-indulgent wastrel (though not stupid) who is enamored of steam automobiles. Of the servants, only Grace, the over-educated ladies-maid, is painted in anything close to three dimensions.

And then there’s Minnie O’Brien, daughter (more or less) of the Stockyard King of Chicago. Minnie, possessed of a good brain and a strong personality, unfortunately also has a past and is no longer a virgin, but now she wants to marry a title. This fits right in with the needs of the Dilbernes, who require their son to marry a lot of money, and quickly. And not to forget the hard-working Eric Baum, talented financier and mining expert, who only wants for himself and (especially) his wife to be accepted in society as real people, regardless of their Jewishness. (They’re the only really sympathetic characters in the book.) But as he observes to himself, “Some people worked hard, tried hard, made money, saved money; others romped through life and somehow got away with it.”

The story starts out rather mawkish and decidedly raunchy by turns, which I suspect will put some readers off, but it improves as the plot acquires complications. Weldon is a thoroughgoing cynic about both extremes of English society on the verge of the Edwardian era and sometimes her invitation to the reader to sneer along with her gets out of hand. Still, there’s some reasonably good writing and character development and I’ll be looking for the next volume.

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