Friday, 1 June 2012

Habits of the House by Fay Weldon | Downton Abbey meets Jane Austen

So I've never read Fay Weldon before, but my boss got a preview copy of her new novel Habits of the House and asked if I was interested, and how could I say no? Luckily I had a blast reading it. If Jane Austen had written the script for Downton Abbey, it might have come out something like this! Fun, sharp and a plot that keeps thickening and keeps you guessing right until the end. It's due for release in July, so you have something to look forward to!

October 1899. Disaster strikes the Earl of Dilberne and his family as his attorney Mr Baum informs him that the gold mine they've invested in in South Africa has been flooded. The family's bills are piling up, and since Rosina, the daugther of the house is a "new woman", it falls on Arthur, the son, to marry for money. But Arthur keeps a mistress that he is not ready to part with and sees no reason why he should be the one to make sacrifices.

Meanwhile, the wealthy and beautiful Minnie O'Brian and her mother Tessie come on a ship from Chicago in search of a husband with a title for Minnie. But Minnie is a girl with a past, and soon all the servants in the Earl's household know all the details of Minnie's secrets and are determined to prevent any disgrace on their household.Do Minnie and Arthur have a chance at happiness against these odds?

In the middle of this, Lady Isobel is stressing about a charity dinner where the Prince, who is a friend of her husband, will attend. With their current money problems, will she have to compromise the amount of courses? And will she be forced to extend an invitation to Mr Baum's wife, who *shudder* lives in the wrong part of London?

The characters are all over the place, and I love it. All of them have their flaws, from the servants who spy on and gossip about their "betters", to the men who keep mistresses while expecting the women to be virgins, and the women who will ignore someone based on where they live or where their money comes from. Weldon's ridicule of her characters is hilarious and entertaining.

1899 is a period of great changes, and these changes make up an important part of the plot. Feminism has entered the stage and "masculine" behaviour is being challenged. Meanwhile, being a lord is no longer equivalent to wealth, and being from trade is no longer equivalent to poverty. Keeping the bloodline "pure" is also losing its value as the need of money becomes more pressing.   

The whole plot of the novel runs over the course of two months, and the structure makes it interesting. Each chapter has a date and time, as well as a title literally explaining what will happen in the chapter. The style works really well. The final chapter is a newspaper entry which pulls it all together and gives us all the answers without being too obvious.

Habits of the House is the first novel in a new trilogy, and I really look forward to reading the next installments. Hope they are due for publication soon too.

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