Habits of the House

By Fay Weldon

(St. Martin’s Press, $25.99, 320 pages)

Who is this author?

An author who has perfected the art of writing with a pen dipped in a very witty brand of acid, Fay Weldon has produced many books that are solidly feminist in content while being wickedly funny: no mean feat. I had the pleasure of being a guest of Weldon’s during a trip to England in the mid-‘90s: I and some friends had lunch at her home, a meeting arranged by our mutual acquaintance Gina Barecca, and we shared opinions with the author on men, marriage, class, America, England and more: a gabfest made in heaven. Several of her novels (there are dozens) are among those I have most enjoyed reviewing.

She is a novelist, playwright and screenwriter with shelves full of honors, including a Writers’ Guild Award for the pilot of “Upstairs Downstairs.” Weldon also is a Commander of the British Empire and among her many books, “Praxis” was shortlisted for the Booker Prize for Fiction; “The Heart of the Country” won a  Los Angeles Times Fiction Prize and “Wicked Women” won a PEN/Macmillan Silver Pen Award.

What is this book about?

Fans of “Downton Abbey” and “Upstairs Downstairs,” rejoice. Here, from the writer of the pilot for “Upstairs Downstairs,” is the first of a projected trilogy that begins 10 years earlier than the events at Downton and mines that apparently endlessly rich territory.

It’s 1899, and the world is changing. The Earl of Dilberne is having money troubles due to reckless gambling and foolish investments. His son has a mistress; his daughter has a parrot in her room. His wife, Isobel, runs the household; her maid runs Isobel’s life. They need an infusion of new money—might an heiress from Chicago with a sketchy reputation fill the bill?

As Weldon herself says: “I was a girl from Downstairs. When I was 16, my bedroom was in the basement of a posh house in London, where my mother was the housekeeper. . . . Odd, this class business. Here’s “Upstairs Downstairs” back again, “Downton Abbey” so popular.”

Why you’ll like it:

Weldon, now in her 80s, has a deep and deep and delicious understanding of what we do for love, what men in a patriarchal system do to women, what women often do to themselves and the absurdity of it all.  She can spin literary gold out of the raw materials of class, gender, greed and jealousy, and she does it with high humor and penetrating insight. Lovers of her work and fans of British costume drama alike should be delighted to know that after this one, two more books exploring that lost world are on the way.

What others are saying:

Booklist says: “Before there was “Downton Abbey,” there was “Upstairs, Downstairs,” and, having written the first episode of that iconic television series, it is only fitting that Weldon now returns to the scene of the crime to further explore the disparate worlds of “them that has and those what serve ’em.” On the brink of the twentieth century, all is not well in the House of Dilberne. The earl has gambled away most of his patrimony and lost the remainder in an ill-timed investment. …Luckily, there’s a mansion’s worth of dubiously loyal maids, butlers, and cooks to conduct vital backroom negotiations. Always a ripe target for mockery and disdain, the British aristocracy comes in for a thorough drubbing in Weldon’s snarky send-up. “

Publishers Weekly says: “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.”

“Good fun from start to finish, thanks to breezy storytelling and witty social observations,” says The Washington Post.

“My favorite part of the original series is the first episode because it was written by a great English novelist, Fay Weldon. Everybody was introduced so cleverly . . . so beautifully established,” says Jean Marsh, co-creator of “Upstairs, Downstairs.”

When is it available?

It’s not upstairs or downstairs. It’s on the new books shelf at the Downtown (not Downton) Hartford Public Library.

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