Upstairs and Downstairs with Fay Weldon’s Habits of the House

habitshouse

I know I am not alone when I say am addicted to Downton Abbey and, to a lesser extent, the recent reboot of Upstairs, Downstairs. Period dramas have always intrigued me. If any story- television, movie, or book- has rich period details, I am easily hooked. At the same time, it is easy to romanticize a period when all you see are wealthy people having parties in fancy clothes and even easier to forget what life was like for the lower classes at the very same time. Weldon presents a more troubled reality for both her upstairs and downstairs characters in Habits of the House.

When I saw the advanced reader’s copy of Habits of the House I picked it up without even reading the description because it was written by Fay Weldon, who wrote the pilot of the original Upstairs, Downstairs. With the show in mind as I read, I was both pleased and even surprised by the book itself.

Habits of the House begins as the London season of 1899 is winding down. Lord Robert, the Earl of Dilberne, has lost a considerable amount of the family fortune in African mine speculations as what we now know would become the Second Boer War is beginning. He turns his attentions- and hopes- to his son, Arthur, as the possible solution to their financial troubles. Lady Isobel, with the unappreciated aid of her maid Grace, susses out a newly arrived American heiress. Minnie might be an unsophisticated American in their eyes, but she has what so many British ladies lack- a fortune.

I picked this one up after a series of “strike outs” with books I could not quite get into. Weldon writes in short, snappy chapters that give you all the detail you need to imagine characters and places, but is not verbose. Two hours quickly passed when I first sat down to read and I could have kept going if I had not been pulled away by a social obligation.

No one character in Habits of the House is truly good, but none of them are truly bad either. They all, upstairs and downstairs, have their character flaws but develop enough through this fun read that I am eager for the second in the series to spend more time with them.

If you come to this book expecting prim and proper historical fiction, be warned Weldon does spice it up with descriptions of visits to prostitutes, trysts, and even the marriage bed. After the initial surprise, I was glad for these scenes. Stories from the Victorian period are often told with a nice varnish on them and it was refreshing to read a book that acknowledged human sexuality is not diminished just because it is not socially en vogue.

Fans of Downton Abbey who are at a loss after the end of the third season last week or anyone who enjoys a fun historical read will enjoy Habits of the House. Two more in the series are expected in summer and late fall of 2013 to keep fans sated until next season.

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