Zenga Longmore

Carrying on regardless

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Habits of the House

Fay Weldon

Head of Zeus, pp. 314, £

As a devotee of Fay Weldon I was amazed but nonetheless delighted by the change of her usual style. Set in 1899, her latest novel charts the lives and loves not of She Devils but Lord Dilburne’s household, both above and below stairs. The trademark Weldon wit is very much in evidence, only this time her characters are fetchingly clad in Liberty’s lace with leg-o’-mutton sleeves.England is tottering on the brink of huge change. The Boer War is being fought. Aristocracy and empire are breathing their last. New snobberies are overtaking the old.

The story opens with filmic suspense. It is seven in the morning. Mr Baum, a Jewish lawyer, races up the steps of Lord Dilburne’s house in Belgrave Square to deliver catastrophic news. The servants take their time to open the door. He’s too flashily dressed and ‘foreign-looking’ to merit their attention.

When Baum is finally admitted, he reveals that the South African gold mine where all the Dilburne money is invested has been sabotaged and looted by Boers. The entire Dilburne fortune is lost. The family’s response is to smile politely and ring for a servant to show Baum out. He is furious — his main worry being that the snooty Dilburnes will not invite his socially ambitious wife Naomi to any of their glittering soirées in the future.

Lord Dilburne, in desperation, thinks fleetingly of finding a job in government to reduce his debts. (I was reminded of Hilaire Belloc’s poem about Peter Goole, the aristocratic spendthrift: ‘And even now at twenty five/He has to WORK to keep alive!’). In the face of financial ruin, Lady Dilburne serenely plans a sumptuous dinner party for the Prince of Wales — which will cost five times the annual wage of Lily, the parlourmaid.

The lives of her unmarried children, Rosina and Arthur, are also seemingly unchanged by the news. Arthur continues to lavish money on his mistress and run up vast tailor’s bills. Rosina, a New Woman, carries on airing fashionably progressive views at literary house parties. Downstairs, the servants busily plot and spy, steaming open letters and repeating conversations.

Everyone, it seems, is heading for disaster until Minnie, an American heiress, arrives in London with her unspeakably awful mother. Would it be deemed too vulgar for Arthur Dilburne to marry into trade?

Briskly written with an ever-present ironic twinkle, this is Fay Weldon at her most spellbinding. The minute observations of 19th-century social and sexual mores are served up as lightly as a Victoria sponge. Period detail is included without the clumsy gratuitousness evident in so many faux- Victorian novels. Pea-soupers, growlers and Fabians are seamlessly woven into the storyline.

This is the first of a trilogy and I cannot wait to see how the Dilburne affairs will pan out. I believe I have unearthed a disturbing plot twist concerning Minnie and her maid Grace, but I promise not to breathe a word.