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Book review: Habits of The House by Fay Weldon

  • by ALLAN MASSIE
 

FAY Weldon is the most accomplished of old hands. Her style is easy and natural, agreeably conversational. The sentences flow, invitingly and undemanding.

Habits of The House

by Fay Weldon

Head of Zeus, 320pp, £16.99

She has always had an eye for the mood of the day, and for the shifting demands of the literary market-place. Her publishers call her “the queen of social drama” and describe this new novel, the first of a projected trilogy as “an unusual departure”.

This is fair enough since it is a historical novel, set in 1899; yet Weldon’s many readers will find nothing alarmingly or distressingly different. The tone of voice is comfortingly familiar, and neither the setting nor the characters will seem disconcertingly new.

Weldon has astutely latched on to the success of Downton Abbey and given us her version of upstairs-downstairs life in a metropolitan setting. The novel opens with the arrival of a Jewish solicitor and man-on-business on the doorstep of number 17 Belgrave Square just before seven o’clock in the morning. Nobody, of course, comes to the front door and rings the bell at that time of day. The family, the Earl and Countess of Dilherne, and their son, Arthur and daughter, Rosina, are still in bed. The under-servants are fully occupied, the butler not yet awake either. So nobody answers the door, and poor Mr Baum is compelled to settle himself on the damp steps, and wait and wait. When he is eventually admitted, he reveals that he has terrible news for the family. The South African gold mine in which the Earl has been persuaded to invest heavily, has been seized by the Boer commandos, production has stopped. The family, already heavily in debt – to Mr Baum himself among others – are ruined. Bankruptcy looms. All this is lightly told, and the authority which Weldon brings to her narration fends off questions of credibility.

How to deal with the dire situation? This is the question which has to be answered. The Earl, though an amiable fellow, friend of the Prince of Wales and dabbler in politics, is quite without business sense.

His wife, daughter of a self-made coal magnate, recently deceased, has more go about her. It is clear that the family may be rescued by finding suitable marriage-mates for Arthur and Rosina. This, however, is not so easy. The likeable Arthur is interested only in the new-fangled motor-cars (though he backs steam-cars against petrol-powered ones) and in the pretty working girl he keeps in an apartment in Half Moon Street; while Rosina is a “New Woman” interested in Causes.

As for Mr Baum, he wants his money back, but he is even more eager to please his wife by securing her entry into society. The servants are more on the ball. If we are to believe Weldon there is a network of servants whose members exchange news and gossip about their employers and who know more about what is going on than they do. In particular, the Countess’s maid, Grace, to whom Arthur happily surrendered his virginity in his early teens, is a wizard at finding things out (thanks to her friendship with the concierges of various grand hotels), and so she is required to draw up a list of suitable heiresses to find one that might suit Arthur.

The plot rattles along merrily, often amusingly, and, while Weldon take pleasure in providing us with the menus for the Countess’s dinner parties (which the Prince may or may not attend), it would be fair to say that the novel is not overburdened with the fruits of research into either the social or political conditions and questions of the time. Instead it skims agreeably over the surface, and the characters, themselves lacking in any complexity, look to be tailor-made for the television adaptation which must surely come, though not perhaps before the trilogy has been completed.

In short this novel is a thoroughly professional piece of story-telling, which, while it makes few demands on the reader – none really – is never less than entertaining. It will be read with enjoyment on beaches and in holiday villas, and might even reconcile its readers to long delays in airport lounges.

As for the outcome, it’s enough to say that Fay Weldon pulls an outrageous rabbit from her conjuror’s hat. She had, however, mapped out several lines which are sufficiently enticing to make her readers eager for the later episodes in the story.

I predict a happy success for the trilogy, in print and on the screen. Julian Fellowes must look to his laurels, and Downton Abbey may find itself running second to 17 Belgrave Square.

 

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