The New Countess

By Fay Weldon

(St. Martin’s Press, $25.99, 334 pages)

Who is this author?

The very witty and deliciously snarky Fay Weldon is back again with the third in a trilogy that aims to please devotees of  the TV smash “Upstairs Downstairs” (for which she wrote the prize-winning pilot episode) and “Downton Abbey,” its worthy successor.

Weldon, now 81 and still going strong, is a multi-award-winning novelist, playwright and screenwriter and a Commander of the British Empire. 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. She was the daughter of a housemaid and lives in England.

What is this book about?

“The New Countess” picks up where “Habits of the House” and “Long Live the King” left off, completing Weldon’s trilogy of upper-crust British life in the Edwardian era, with plenty of down-to-earth commentary by the manor house staff. It is set a decade earlier than “Downton Abbey,” and is tailor-made for fans of that TV show and the beloved “Upstairs Downstairs. In this novel, it is 1903 in England and Lord and Lady Dilberne are flustered by the endless and elaborate process of getting ready to host the King and Queen (and the king’s mistress) in their 100-room abode. Not only must the great house be gussied up; the  little grandkids must be coached in appropriate behavior – appropriate in the eyes of Lady Dilberne but not of daughter-in-law Minnie O’Brien, the Chicago meat-packing heiress who married the Dilberne’s son, bringing tons of money, if not an impeccable upbringing, to the family. Just to complicate things further, Minnie’s mother, Tessa, a rather uncouth sort, is also visiting. Add marriage problems, troublesome and eccentric relatives and a changing society, and the result is a dilemma for the Dilbernes but great fun for the reader.

Why you’ll like it:

As I mentioned when I blogged in Under the Covers a year ago about “Habits of the House,” Fay Weldon  has “a 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.” She does so in “The New Countess,” which concludes the Dilberne saga. Readers will likely enjoy this book best if they have already consumed its two predecessors, but this one can be read alone with satisfaction.

What others are saying:               

The Boston Globe says:  “. . . daughter of a London housekeeper, Weldon first used her intimate knowledge of the underside of the English gentry when she penned the pilot of the hugely popular “Upstairs Downstairs” series in 1971, and she has built a career skewering the various strata of society. Now . . . Weldon throws us another tidbit, full of titled misbehavior and the secrets that only the servants know.

Says the Christian Science Monitor: If a certain wildly popular British TV show comes to mind, that’s no surprise. . . . Her Edwardian trilogy, told with wit, wry observation and fascinating period detail, is just as absorbing.

Weldon . . . writes with an insider’s knowledge about the concerns of that now-vanished world . . . .Weldon‘s characters prove themselves to be an all too believable mix of good impulses and bad, selfless and selfish. Part of the fun is that everyone gets (and for the most part takes) the opportunity to behave quite badly. There’s plenty of Nobility in this tale, but precious little nobility. Weldon, at 81, holds no illusions about her fellow human beings. No doubt growing up behind the scenes in a Great House took care of that.

Feminist scholar [and UConn professor] Gina Barreca, in a recent appraisal of Weldon, after concluding that Weldon’s “incisive, funny, truth-telling places her among Woolf, Mansfield, Bowen and Spark,” questions why this exceptional writer isn’t taken more seriously.

Berreca’s conclusion? “We often value authors who write wisely, but, in fact, not terribly well.”

Happily, here, Weldon does both.”

Booklist says: “Weldon concludes her excellent Dilberne Court trilogy as Lord Robert and Lady Isobel prepare for a visit from King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra. As the frenzied preparations by both family and staff members shift into high gear, things are not running as smoothly as they ought to be on either the domestic front or in the financial arena. Fraught with multiple plotlines that bridge the gap between the servants and the served, the entire affair is delightfully Downtonish. Weldon, the writer of the pilot episode of the original Upstairs, Downstairs, has dipped her toes into the Edwardian pool before, with great results; this time she dives right in and readers—especially those who have already enjoyed the exploits of the Dilberne dynasty in Habits of the House and Long Live the King—will be eager to plunge in, too.”

“The novel’s conclusion is surprising. With remarkable skill, Weldon reverses the reader’s expectations in such a way that the astonishment is followed by an immediate recognition of inevitability,” says The Star Tribune.

When is it available?

The Downtown Hartford Public Library has copies of “The New Countess” for you.

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