Capitalizing on the success of Downton Abbey and the Upstairs, Downstairs remake, Fay Weldon's Habits of the House is the first volume in a trilogy set at the end of the 19th century. (The other two volumes, Long Live the King and The New Countess, will follow in the spring and fall of 2013.) Weldon, who wrote the first episode of the original Upstairs, Downstairs in the early 1970s, returns to an aristocratic household setting for this story, following the lives of both the upstairs toffs and the downstairs servants over a three-month period.
The household learns at the beginning of the novel that its finances are ruined. The Earl of Dilberne, always the gambler, has lost a fortune (mostly his wife's) in a gold mine in Africa; he didn't consider the Boers when making his investment. The Earl and his wife must now look to their children to bail out the family by making advantageous marriages.
Daughter Rosina is not a good prospect; she is an outspoken feminist, more mannish than feminine, not given to social compromise or pleasantries. Viscount Arthur bodes well for the role, if he can stop seeing his mistress, Flora, long enough to get serious about a proper wife. One doesn't marry "those kinds of women," after all--fine for a dalliance but not for producing an heir or two. And, too, some of the drain on family resources has been Flora's upkeep, which Arthur is now forced to share with another man. Of course, that means sharing Flora's favors as well. What Arthur doesn't know is that Flora's first "protector" was his own father. Such arrangements were commonplace at the time--even in the best of homes.
Enter Melinda O'Brien, daughter of a Chicago meatpacking millionaire--although her paternity may not be as it seems. A practical girl, Minnie realizes that after the scandal of moving in with her art teacher, she is not marriageable at home. A title would be nice for her family; her money would be a big help to Arthur and his family. On such foundations are many marriages built, then and now.
Weldon's "world of lies" has a serious glitch here and there, but all will be well in the end. --Valerie Ryan
Shelf Talker: The beginning of a trilogy about Edwardian England, upstairs, downstairs, in the streets of London and in the country, ably portrayed by Fay Weldon.