Unabashedly positioned to appeal to the audience of “Downton Abbey,” Fay Weldon’s entertaining new novel peeps into the drawing rooms and bedrooms of an aristocratic London mansion in the fall of 1899, with a few glances at the kitchen to maintain its “Upstairs Downstairs” pedigree. (Weldon wrote the pilot episode of that perennially popular series, but she is better known for her many novels, including “The Life and Loves of a She-Devil.”) This formula seems to appeal especially to Americans: We love to wallow in descriptions of lavish, upper-crust clothes and parties, but apparently we feel better about it if some salty working-class characters democratically remind us that their labors support this sybaritic lifestyle.
Weldon obliges, particularly in the observations of Grace, the Countess of Dilberne’s maid, who is considering leaving service to escape “the sheer indignity of being treated as no different from a pet cat or dog.” But the gentry are the center of attention in this swiftly paced, absorbing narrative launched by the sabotage and looting of a South African gold mine during the Boer War, which threatens to wreck the Earl of Dilberne’s already shaky finances.
Arthur, the earl’s son, must marry for money, and his mother has the perfect candidate: Minnie O’Brien, daughter of a Chicago meat baron, who has just arrived on the Oceanic. The maneuvering that follows will surprise no one, but it’s a nice touch that Minnie is husband-hunting in England because she ruined her reputation in Chicago by living openly with an artist who turned out to be married. Minnie is something of a New Woman, albeit a far less abrasive one than Arthur’s sister, who is a virtual caricature of self-righteous liberalism.
Indeed, all the characters are broadly drawn. The earl is the usual feckless nobleman, careless with money since he’s never had to earn it. His wife is the smart one and, as the illegitimate daughter of a low-born industrialist who married up, is most concerned with maintaining social standards that she knows are old-fashioned. She resists, as “a matter of principle,” her husband’s pleas to extend a dinner invitation to the wife of his Jewish financial adviser. The adviser is a man on the make, eager to leave behind drawbacks such as his religion. And Arthur is a cheerful hypocrite whose proposal to Minnie is too blatantly cynical even for a class in which marriages are essentially business mergers.
Weldon seasons these stereotypes with enough unpredictability to make them palatable, and “Habits of the House” is good fun from start to finish, thanks to its breezy storytelling and witty social observations. True to her roots in series television, Weldon promises two more volumes continuing the Dilbernes’ saga for spring and fall — which should almost fill the long hiatus before Season 4 of “Downton Abbey” begins in January 2014.
Smith is the author of “Real Life Drama: The Group Theatre and America,” which will be reissued this spring.