The New Countess by Fay Weldon

9781250028037_p0_v2_s260x420Fay Weldon completes her trilogy of British upstairs/downstairs society in The New Countess.  All the familiar characters are back, but if you’ve forgotten their assorted scandals and peccadilloes, as I had, Weldon fills in the back story.  The new countess does not emerge until the last chapter, when an accidental shooting at a hunting party conveniently wraps up the lives and stories of the three-book saga.

Maybe my expectations were too high but this final book was not as gripping or as fun as the first two.  Although I enjoyed the machinations of the various lords and ladies and the downstairs staff interventions and gossip, the story seemed stale.

In a recent interview with Carole Burns, Weldon proclaims the novel as dead:

“…the novel has become just entertainment.  Fifty or 60 years ago, the novel was the only way you had of finding out what was in other people’s heads.  You didn’t know anything other than what you read in fiction about how lives were for other people.  But now we have film and television, and the novel as a source of understanding and information is no longer really necessary.”

Maybe that’s the reason –  television – Downton Abbey is being broadcast where I live now, but I read the first two novels in that slough of downtime, awaiting the return of the Dowager Duchess played by  Maggie Smith.  Maybe watching has become more entertaining.

Review of First Two Books in the Trilogy

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Émile Zola’s “Paradise” – The Ladies’ Delight

9780143124702_p0_v1_s260x420The new cover of  Émile Zola’s classic – Au Bonheur Des Dames (The Ladies’ Delight) has a familiar face from the PBS (Public Broadcasting Service) series – “The Paradise.”  The televised series focuses on the melodrama, with cliffhangers at the end of each episode, using  Zola’s idea of French shoppers in the nineteenth century, and offering behind the scenes tales of the sales team and the driven aggressive shop owner.  I bought the book to catch up with the story, but did not expect to fall under Zola’s spell. He paints each scene so clearly, you can imagine you are in the midst of lush fabric and frenzied shoppers.

The young virginal Denise stars in both the book and the series, but PBS 9780140447835conveniently left out her two younger brothers, and recast her unforgiving uncle, the small store owner, as a willing conspirator.  Zola’s book includes the romance and the anguish of the television drama, but they are clearly asides to the marvel of those times – the first large department store with clever marketing, enticing sales, and the harbinger of the future of shopping.  Small shop owners could not compete with retail on a large scale, and the stark comparison of the very rich to the poor working class sets a harsher scene than the televised series.  Zola’s descriptions of those 13 hour work days, cell-like housing, and putrid food are conveniently left out.  Zola, of course, was the crusader (remember the Dreyfus Affair); through Denise, his heroine, he champions the woman’s new role as independent entrepreneur, and creates better working conditions for the sales team – the seed of future union labor.

Émile Zola

Émile Zola

The PBS series is a charming and engaging period drama,  conveniently focusing on the simmering romance between Denise and Mouret, the innovative store owner.  While “Paradise,”  the PBS version of upstairs/downstairs in the marketplace includes the happy romantic ending that Zola provided in his book,  the novel includes more information on the effects of the new big box store as it destroys small shop owners and their way of life.

If you are looking for the Readers’ Digest adaptation with a few Hollywood embellishments, you will probably find the televised series more enjoyable – a good preface to the upcoming season of Downton Abbey.  But if you are willing to take the time to examine social motivations and immerse yourself in another era, Zola’s The Ladies’ Delight combines history with Zola’s unique perspective and descriptive language.  I liked both.

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.

The Real Downton Abbey by the Lady of the House

coverAs an ardent fan of Downton Abbey, I am always eager to discover the reality behind the fiction.  Diane Stoneback’s article The Real Downton Abbey  reviewed the recent fan mania for tours of Highclere Castle in Newbury, England – the site of the televised serial, and mentioned  Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey,  a book by Lady Fiona, the current Countess who lives at Highclere with her husband, the Eighth Earl of Carnavon.

In her research on the house’s legacy, Lady Fiona found Lady Almina in the archives – an outsider just like the character Cora – a woman who brought wealth as a substitute for British nobility and respectability, and helped to sustain the Earl’s lifestyle.  The book was not in my library system (no surprise) but I downloaded it on my Kindle.  So far, I am not disappointed.  The storyline is full of details of the lives of the Earl and his wife.  The scandals may not be as surreptitious as the televised fiction, but Lady Fiona diligently chronicles their adventures, and it’s easy to imagine them as the inspiration for the Earl of Grantham and his entourage.

Related Article:

A Conversation With the Countess of Downton Abbey

Lark Rise to Candleford

With the third season of Downton Abbey in full swing, British drama has me in its grip.  To “mind the gap” between Sundays, I’ve discovered another BBC series – available by season on DVD – Lark Rise to Candleford.  A cast of British actors with lovely accents substitutes small country village vs urbanized society for the upstairs/downstairs interaction of Downton Abbey but with the same effect.  Bates (the former valet now in prison for killing his wife) from Downton Abbey plays a key role as a patriarch and stone mason in the little village of Lark Rise.

883929118137_p0_v2_s260x420With the drama set in the early 1940s, Laura Timmons serves as the fulcrum in the storyline – the young beautiful Lark Rise country girl who goes to the town of Candleford with the promise of a career and possible future fortune.  Miss Lane, the post office mistress and owner, is her mentor as well as the quiet influence behind the town and the conduit among citizens of both.  Like Downton Abbey, the ensemble cast moves in and out of the action with witty dialogue and  episodes shifting the focus on their lives.

Four seasons were filmed and completed by 2011 and all are available at my library.   As the BBS introduction by John Oliver from the Daily Show notes – Americans seem to appreciate British drama, and it’s free.

Have you discovered Lark Rise to Candleford?