LAST GREAT READS FOR JUNE, 2013
Long live the King, by Fay Weldon
This is the second volume of Ms Weldon’s ‘Love and Inheritance’ trilogy, following ‘Habits of the House’ (see review below) and once again, the reader is in for a treat as they follow the fortunes of the aristocratic Dilberne family, recently rejuvenated financially by the arranged marriage between son and heir to the Earldom, Arthur, and Minnie, a very rich but ‘low-born’ young Chicago heiress.
The old queen has recently died and all of London is agog at the arrangements for the impending coronation of Edward VII, formerly Bertie, Prince of Wales, the gambler and profligate now a Monarch determined to prove to his nation and government that he can rule with wisdom, power and dignity: his ministers and courtiers are eager to assist him in that regard, but the pomp and ceremony demanded by him are making big dents in the public purse and any objections are met with the assertion that the Empire ‘expects a good show’, so a good show must be arranged.
Isabel, Countess of Dilberne expects to make a good show of her family and is gratified to know that she and her rich daughter-in-law Minnie will walk behind Queen Alexandra in the Abbey procession – her social standing can rise no higher – until by a series of misadventures, three extra seat invitations to the Abbey are lost, first sent by her to the Earl’s feuding, hateful younger brother Edwin, a parson in Somerset, then irretrievable when the rectory is burnt to the ground a couple of days later. Even worse, she and her husband are expected to take into the family fold the only survivor of the conflagration, Adela, 15 year old daughter of Edwin, an act of charity too hard for the Earl who flatly refuses to have contact with anyone connected with Edwin. Fortunately or not, Adela disappears and is thought to have committed suicide, causing her reluctant relatives to heave sighs of pity and relief: they no longer feel an obligation through blood – no matter how odious – to be responsible for her: they can devote their considerable energies to Coronation etiquette, costumes and who is permitted by rank to wear more inches of ermine than others – and who will be sitting where, and next to whom, because the vexed question of the missing invitations has still not been answered.
Ms Weldon enjoys herself thoroughly – as does the reader - guiding her characters through the perilous waters of English society high and low and there is no more shrewd observer of the double standards that prevailed at the beginning of the twentieth century (as illustrated so ably in ‘Habits of the House’), and no writer who could intersperse her fictional characters with the real-life luminaries of the time more successfully.
Ms Weldon writes in elegant prose of the great new ideas of the thinkers and literary titans of the day: George Bernard Shaw, H.G. Wells, Arthur Balfour, Ford Madox Ford, and that lone, formidable female Beatrice Webb, champion of women’s rights, creating such sparkling dialogue between them and their enormously wealthy society patrons that the reader is utterly convinced that Ms Weldon was actually present whilst great plans were hatched.
This is a vastly entertaining trilogy: I was sorry to come to the end of both books and as before, am looking forward to reading the next episode – and sad that it will be the last. Ms Weldon doesn’t always hit the jackpot with me, but with this charming series, all the bells are ringing! Highly recommended.
Habits of the House, by Fay Weldon reviewed March, 2013
Fay Weldon needs no introduction: not only is she a literary household name, but she also gained fame in the British advertising world before she started her writing career for coining the unforgettable phrase on Billboards: ‘Go to Work on an Egg.’ What a woman!
‘Habits of the House’, we are told, is the first book of a trilogy – which is a good thing, for this is a most charming story, with characters that any reader would love to meet again; the only problem being that Ms Weldon’s novel bears a great resemblance to the ubiquitous ‘Downton Abbey’, and unkind critics could say that she was perhaps trying to ride that most successful bandwagon: after all, imitation is the most sincere form of flattery but that said, Ms Weldon still manages, in spite of many similarities, to produce a different slant on manners and mores – and the hypocrisies - of life upstairs and downstairs at the turn of the 19th century.
The Earl of Dilberne has reached a financial crisis: because of various unwise investments, not to mention trying to keep up with the gambling habits of the Prince of Wales, he has run through his own fortune as well as the enormous dowry his wife, Lady Isobel, brought into their marriage: the time has come for drastic action. There is nothing else for it but to marry off Viscount Arthur, their playboy son to someone with a LOT of money. And at the close of the season, there are not many young heiresses to choose from – except Minnie O’Brien, recently arrived from America with her distressingly vulgar mother, openly shopping for A Title.
Arthur keeps a mistress, whom, he learns in due course (to his horror), used to service his father. He is amenable to marrying to save the family bacon (his tailor bill is ENORMOUS – one wishes that they would stop sending so many reminders for payment!), but he still requires, in fact expects, that his blushing bride will be a virgin. His contempt and disdain are absolute when he discovers that Minnie has A Past, and an unsavoury one at that. The fact that he keeps a woman for his pleasure is not, to him, in any way a double standard: that is what gentlemen do. Ladies are not afforded the same freedom.
Add to the mix the private lives of the people who look after and service the needs of the upper crust: Grace the ladies maid, Reginald the footman, Mr and Mrs Neville, the butler and cook; they all know a lot more about their employers than one could ever dream, and Eric Baum, the Earl’s lawyer, a Jew, laments to himself as he swears revenge – after too many slights – ‘the Israelites may be God’s children, but God is an Englishman.’
Well said, Ms Weldon: bring on Book Two!