Habits of the House and Long Live the King

9781250026620_p0_v1_s260x4209781250028006_p0_v1_s260x420Like catching up on past seasons of Downton Abbey, Fay Weldon’s trilogy focusing on the Edwardian lifestyle of the British is best enjoyed in sequence, without too much waiting in between.  I finished reading Habits of the House, the first in the series, to meet Lord Robert, Earl of Dilberne and related characters who could be the cast of Downton, with only  Maggie Smith’s Dowager Duchess absent; then quickly moved on to Long Live the King, to attend the coronation of Queen Victoria’s heir, Edward, the new king and a friend of the 51BCoER5+qL._SY300_family.  The publication of the last book in the series – The New Countess – will be in December, with the possibility of a Dowager Dutchess finally in residence.   Downton Abbey, Season 4 begins in January – perfect timing.

The grand Edwardian lifestyle is in jeopardy, and only a marriage with a wealthy American looking for a title can save the British aristocrats from losing the estate, the horses, the servants, and everything else – and modernization lurks in the wings.  Sound familiar?  Fay Weldon, the creator of the beloved “Upstairs Downstairs” series, uses wry humor to poke at the sensibilities and politics of the privileged as well those “in service.”  At times, the lines are blurred and the lady’s maid can be more adamant in maintaining the class structure than the lady of the house. Nonetheless, Weldon carefully inserts her ongoing commentary on the strained politics (Churchill was just a start-up then), as she quietly ridicules the narrow-minded attitudes that can be as rigid as the whale-boned corsets of the times.

The historical references are instructive, and I found myself looking up the Boers War, Queen Victoria’s John Brown, the Vanderbilt connection, and, of course, the succession chart.  In the first two books, the Earl and his family carry on to the early 1900s, with changes in fashion, lifestyle, and politics.  The gossip, however, remains the sustaining and stabilizing force in the stories, along with those wonderfully convenient soap opera scenarios that twist the plot lines: a beautiful young girl saved from a fire becomes a princess instead of a nun and saves the King.

With a little bit of luck and a lot of good writing, all ends well in each of the first two books.  My expectations are high for the third book; if you are a fan waiting for the next season of Downton Abbey, Weldon’s trilogy will sustain you.

Alys, Always

A good deed changes Frances Thorpe’s life in Harriet Lane’s Alys, Always.

When Frances Thorpe stops to help a woman whose car has overturned in a ditch, she never expects that the final moments of Alice (Alys), trapped inside the car, will give Frances an opportunity to improve her life.  At first, reluctant to meet the family of the dead woman, she changes her mind when she discovers that the widower is a famous British writer.  Frances’s motivation for adding  five words to Alys Kyte’s dying statement might have been to console the family, at first, but the small lie is the beginning of a series of ambitious actions that lead to her insinuating herself into the family.

The story moves slowly as Lane carefully compares the privileged life of the Kytes – Lawrence, handsome and famous writer; Polly, spoiled rich daughter; Teddy, the perceptive son – to that of Frances, a working girl, a copy  editor in the book section of a newspaper.  The suspense builds slowly as Frances emerges from her average middle-class life into someone who has connections.  As she morphs from the obscure heroine into a convenient foil, Frances becomes confidante to Polly and a frequent visitor to the Kyte’s country estate. Lane’s slow reveal of her characters keeps you wondering if the manipulation is intended or a by-product of their emerging relationships.

In this slow-moving thoughtful introspective of intentions, small deceits, and yearning for what others have, Lane offers a look into the lives of two British classes.  Not the upstairs/downstairs of Downton Abby, but the new modern rich (in this case, a successful author) and the working class aspirant who dreams of being Cinderella, jumping into the world of wealth and privilege.  The story’s outcome was always in limbo, and not until the very end does Lane reveal Frances’s fate – at once, surprising but expected; you may have to recalculate your assessment of Frances.

Like other short but powerful British novels, this one will stay with you, and leaves so much to discuss.