Missing 'Downton Abbey' already? Try Fay Weldon’s 'Habits of the House'
February 19, 2013By Roz Warren
Let's face it: You're addicted. You can't live without it. When you're not actually enjoying it, you're longing to savor it again. You'd be ashamed to admit how many waking moments you've devoted to obsessing about it.
I'm not talking about drugs, kinky sex, or even double chocolate layer cake.
I'm taking about "Downton Abbey." You can't get enough of those crazy Crawleys and their long-suffering servants. The gorgeous settings! The fabulous clothing! The crisp British-accented dialogue! The oddly compelling plot twists! (Preeclampsia? Who saw that coming?)
You've watched every season. Twice. But you hunger for more. And that the season 3 finale has passed, you'll be Crawley-bereft till next year!
I've got good news. British novelist Fay Weldon has just written a novel, "Habits of the House," that's so close to watching "Downton Abbey," you can practically hear the theme music as you read it.
Weldon, who has written dozens of novels and won countless awards, has long been popular in the U.K. She's even a Commander of the British Empire! (I don't know what that is, either, but isn't it a fabulous credential for an 81-year-old woman?) More to the point, Weldon co-wrote the pilot of the original "Upstairs, Downstairs," from whose DNA "Downton Abbey" was undeniably cloned.
Weldon's novels tend to be acerbic and provocative, and often contain a sharp feminist critique of patriarchal culture. And while some of her recent books have been so meta and disgruntled as to be nearly unreadable, "Habits of the House" is a page-turner, packed with wit, wry observation, and fascinating period detail.
It's 1899 London, and the Earl of Dilberne, having made some disastrous investment decisions, faces financial ruin. The easy life he and his family lead at No. 17 Belgrave Square is at risk. As are the not-so-easy livelihoods of their many servants. The remedy? Lord Dilberne and his wife, Isobel, decide they must marry off their motorcar-mad son Arthur to a wealthy American. It's an easy swap — his title for her money. Minnie, a Chicago meat-packing heiress with a past (and a raucous but lovable ex–burlesque queen mother), soon appears on the scene. As this little dance plays itself out, the earl faces an even more daunting task: persuading his haughty wife to extend a dinner party invitation to the Jewish financial adviser to whom he owes a small fortune.
The reader is a fly on the wall as the aristocrats scheme, the servants gossip, and the social climbers try to claw, cajole, charm, bribe, or threaten their way into the elite Dilberne dining room, so they, too, can enjoy tartlets of crayfish in a cream sauce, turbot with tartar sauce, grouse sautéed in sherry, and a dozen other delicious courses with guests who include the Prince of Wales.
You know where this is going, of course, but there are enough surprises and revelations along the way to keep the reader engaged, and while nobody behaves heroically — the character flaws of all the players are on display — one grows fond of them anyway. Which makes it all the more unsettling when, just as you are delighting in her company, Lady Isobel blithely makes an anti-Semitic remark. Or the earl smugly voices a misogynistic opinion. Even without employing her usual caustic narrative voice, Weldon is happy to rub the reader's 21st-century nose in the unpalatable prejudices of these titled Victorians. (And of their servants as well.)
As with "Downton Abbey," every event is seen from the point of view of both master and servant, and fictional characters rub elbows with real people like H.G. Wells. We experience a vibrant time in British history through the eyes of people who are living through it, and, in an echo of DA's third season, enjoy the contrast between the upper-class Brits and their vulgar, feisty, but compellingly monied American "cousins."
Weldon has long been such an unconventional and provocative writer that I kept expecting this perfectly engaging historical novel to turn into something a little edgier. But "Habits of the House" is a romp, from start to finish. It could be that, at 81, after a long career spent writing clever, biting, and deeply unconventional novels, Weldon finally decided it was time to sheathe her claws and cash in on the wildly popular genre she'd helped create. Or maybe, having gotten her readers hooked, she'll spring a few surprises on us in this trilogy's next volume, due out in May.
All I know for certain is that "Habits of the House" is sure to satisfy your Crawley cravings. Enjoy!
An earlier version of this essay appeared in Women's Voices for Change.
Roz Warren's work appears in The New York Times and The Funny Times.