Habits of the House by Fay Weldon

habits of the house, fay weldonDATE FINISHED: August 1st, 2013 

RATED: **** 

SYNOPSIS:  During a stay in London’s Belgrave Square, the Hedleigh family suddenly find themselves on the brink of bankruptcy, due to an unfortunate investment gone awry, not to mention a variety of gambling debts courtesy of the Earl… The daughter of the house is an ardent feminist and has declared herself out of the marriage market, so the only thing for it is for the charming but ineffectual son of the family, Arthur, to pull himself together and marry money – quickly!  The Countess and her maid work both together and against each other to bring about a ‘happy’ union with a visiting heiress (with a scandal in her past); but will Arthur’s preference for laid-back living and his sister’s horror at his mildly amoral proclivities scupper the grand plan to save the family?

THOUGHTS:  A comedy of manners both above and below stairs, I thoroughly enjoyed this period romp. The characters are reminiscent of Bertie Wooster and friends (albeit with a few more sexual references) – opinionated yet amiable, and willing to be swept across the stage by various plot, sub-plot and unexpected circumstance.

Weldon curbs her often acidic touch and settles for a far subtler arch humour, raising an eyebrow at her characters without the intrusive authorial omniscience she sometimes brings to the page. Instead she plays the characters against each other and themselves – they are ignorant of each others’ true motives and feelings – while the reader is privy to each of their thoughts, and watches with fascination as they ruin fine plans only to find that fate is determined for them to fulfil their destinies regardless. There’s something very satisfying about the cyclical quality of this story, and the characters appearing in many ways merely as pawns in the author’s game.

If you like your historical novels packed with fine detail and dense prose, you are likely to be disappointed. But if you are looking for a well-crafted novel with a lighter touch, this could well fit the bill.  I’m very happy that this is a trilogy and so I have two more ‘chapters’ to look forward to (where presumably some of the minor threads left dangling will also be neatly tied together).

FOLLOWING ON:  Long Live the King and The New Countess by Fay Weldon, completing the ‘Love and Inheritance Trilogy’; The Hearts and Lives of Men by Fay Weldon – my favourite non-period novel from this author.   The upper class manners and expectations are reminiscent of Love in a Cold Climate by Nancy Mitford, as well as P.G.Wodehouse, as mentioned above.  There’s also a hint of Sarah WatersFingersmith in the light touch and the maid’s perspective.

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