Inside the great house
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.