Do you have “Downton Abbey” fever? Novelist Fay Weldon and interior design expert Elizabeth Wilhide have just the books to keep you happily distracted until the third season begins on January 6—or to ease the wait for season four.
Over her 40-year career as a writer, Fay Weldon has been known for her unpredictability, from controversial early novels such as The Life and Loves of a She-Devil to the commercial tie-in The Bulgari Connection. Now the author of the first episode of the original “Upstairs Downstairs” turns her attentions to 1890s England. The first in a planned trilogy, Habits of the House is a comedy of manners that takes advantage of Weldon’s rich sense of farce.
Habits of the House opens on the well-appointed front steps of 17 Belgrave Square, where Eric Baum, financial counselor to the Earl of Dilberne, is ringing the doorbell. The relentless pealing sets off a chain of responses from the domestic staff, who ignore the bell, deeming Baum “too foreign looking” to be worthy of the front door. Lady Isobel and her adult children, the ne’er-do-well Robert and his fiercely independent suffragette sister, Rosina, can’t be bothered to get out of bed. It is the Earl who finally allows Baum in, noting that this is the first time he has opened the front door himself.
The news Baum brings isn’t good—the Earl’s investments in South African gold mines have been badly affected by the Boer war. The only real answer is to marry the children off to money without delay, despite the fact that Rosina seems unmarriageable and Robert is keeping a mistress. Cue the entrance of wealthy Americans—beef baron Billy O’Brien, his vulgar wife, Tessa, and their daughter Minnie, a beautiful girl with a questionable past.
Habits of the House moves quickly, and though the characters sometimes seem like they’ve been ordered from Central Casting (doughty cook, brash American, street-smart manservant), the novel retains a tongue-in-cheek humor even when it examines the tougher issues of the times.
Elizabeth Wilhide’s Ashenden traces the history of a grand British home from the 18th century to the present. Middle-aged New Yorker Charlie Minton is awoken by a phone call from his sister: They have inherited the estate owned by their Uncle Hugo and Aunt Reggie. Charlie goes to England to find the house in terrible disrepair. The National Trust isn’t interested, and he and his sister can’t agree on another solution. The novel then moves from the present day through the two centuries since the house was built. Readers meet the financially insolvent Mores, who never even paid the initial builder; Mrs. Trimble, who spent years as a housekeeper only to end up impoverished; a POW during World War II; and finally Reggie and Hugo, for whom the restoration of the house was an extension of their loving marriage.
This is Wilhide’s first novel, though she has written books on interior design and collaborated on projects with notables like designer Orla Kiely. Ashenden’s history is based on the history of Basildon Park, which was also built in the 18th century, lived in by many families, turned into an army hospital and a prisoner of war camp, and lovingly restored in the 1950s. This charming book suggests a house is a living, ever-changing thing, deeply affected by the people who live and work in it.Copyright 2012 BookPage Reviews.
First in a trilogy, Weldon's new work opens in 1899 with the Earl of Dilberne eager to marry off his son to an heiress to stave off serious financial difficulty after a bad stock-market gamble. Rich, gorgeous Minnie from Chicago is the target. (Sounds as if we are in Edith Wharton territory.) Billed as an enticing Downton Abbey prequel; a big blog/bookclub campaign[Page 54]. (c) Copyright 2012. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
Conflict between the Boers and the British in South Africa could spell financial ruin for the Earl of Dilberne. The goldmine in which he has invested most of his assets, including his wife's inheritance and children's trust funds, has been destroyed by the fighting. Despite dire warnings from the solicitor who manages his business affairs, the Earl and his wife, Isobel, must maintain appearances. How to cover tailoring bills and gambling debts while maintaining Dilberne Court in Hampshire plus a London household? Arthur, the son and heir, must marry for money. He agrees as long as he can continue experimenting with steam cars and supporting his mistress. Enter Minnie O'Brien, daughter of a wealthy meat packer, who needs a titled husband to erase Chicago gossip about her affair with a married man. Arthur's sister, Rosina, professes support for numerous social causes from international peace to feminism but shows little concern for the Dilberne servants. They, of course, know everything that happens in the household and spend much time exchanging gossip. As 1899 ends, a stroke of luck averts financial ruin temporarily--or at least long enough to continue the Dilberne story in two more volumes slated for 2013. VERDICT Weldon, who wrote the pilot for Upstairs, Downstairs, travels well-worn territory here, but she does so effortlessly and adroitly. Fans of Downton Abbey and similar sagas will enjoy exploring the twists and turns of life in the extended Dilberne household. [75,000-copy first printing; see Prepub Alert, 7/6/12.]--Kathy Piehl, Minnesota State Univ. Lib., Mankato[Page 74]. (c) Copyright 2012. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
This first installment of Weldon's late-Victorian trilogy centers on the Dilberne family, a titled albeit impoverished British house. The earl makes poor business decisions and continually runs up debts gambling with the Prince of Wales. Resolving to restore the family fortunes, he decides the clearest way to do this is to marry off his children. He sets upon son Arthur and, with the help of the household servants, locates a wealthy Chicago heiress, Minnie O'Brien. However, as the young couple start learning about each other, they realize that they both carry secrets that could ruin the engagement and their prospects. Weldon introduces several characters, both upper class and lower class, and in many ways the whole book feels expository because it lacks high-stakes drama. However, it succeeds as an opening to a new series and should entice enough to make it worth checking out the subsequent installments. Agent: Georgina Capel, Capel & Land Ltd. (Jan.)[Page ]. Copyright 2012 PWxyz LLC