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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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.

Cold Comfort Farm

Stella Gibbons wrote Cold Comfort Farm  in 1932, but her contemporary observations are as pointed and humorous today.  At first, Flora Poste may seem to be the predecessor of Bridget Jones or one of Sophie Kinsella’s characters, but if you listen carefully, you may find more of an Oscar Wilde or Jonathan Swift.  Even if you don’t catch all the references, you’ll still enjoy the story and have some good laughs.

The beginning lines could rival Jane Austen (whose Persuasion is reverently acknowledged by Flora):

“The education bestowed on Flora Poste by her parents had been expensive, athletic and prolonged; and when they died within a few weeks of one another during the annual epidemic of the influenza or Spanish Plague which occurred in her twentieth year, she was discovered to possess every art and grace save that of earning her own living.”

Unwilling to continue to impose on her wealthy friend, Mrs. Smiling, who had taken her in after her parents’ death, Flora decides to tap into the only inheritance she has – her relatives, while she is “collecting material” for her novel.  Only one responds favorably to her letters – the Starkadders on Cold Comfort Farm – distant cousins who imply they owe Flora from a mysterious wrong done to her family years ago.  Undeterred by the prospect of substituting her social circle for a farm with cows named Graceless, Pointless, Feckless, and Aimless, and a cousin who washes dishes with a twig, Flora packs her favorite book (The Higher Common Sense) and takes the train to her new adventure.

Gibbons eccentric characters are clever foils for Flora’s organizing skills  – Aunt Ada Doom, who saw “something nasty in the woodshed” that drove her to barracading herself in her bedroom for twenty years; her son, Amos Starkadder, an aspiring fire and brimstone evangelist (“there’ll be no butter in hell”); her grandson, Seth, “who looked exactly what he was, the locally sexually successful bounder,” whose favorite person is himself; Mr. Mybug, the author who is exposing the Bronte sisters for stealing novels from their brother; Elfine, the granddaughter who is a free spirit in need of a makeover; Adam, the old hired hand who likes cows better than people.  As Flora manages to adjust each life to her spirited view of how they should be – “{she} liked everything to be tidy and pleasant and comfortable about her” – the conversations are hilarious.

Flora, the model of propriety, always maintains her outward composure while her silent quips betray her true feelings:

“The {wedding} decorations…were really charming…only white flowers were suitable to Elfine’s extreme youth and undoubted purity…Flora repressed the unworthy reflection that it reminded her of a White Sale…”

Gibbons uses the sparse plot to not so gently mock the country bumpkin and the city sophisticate.  Flora has her way in the end, and the Starkadders are all reformed into a civilized life,  with  their  “mode of living {molded} to suit {Flora’s} taste.”

I found this book through one of my book clubs, and I am so looking forward to discussing the innuendos while laughing at the characters’ foibles – maybe some we all have in common.

The Queen of the Tambourine

When does the balance tip from talking too much to babbling like an idiot?  What’s the difference between being eccentric or certifiably disturbed?  Eliza, in Jane Gardam’s Whitbread Award winning Queen of the Tambourine, seems to be just a lonely 50-year-old housewife whose husband has left her – until she sees a man dissolve down a drain.

Organized as letters to a missing neighbor – an epistolary – the story begins with a nosy uptight Eliza, writing to give unsolicited advice to the woman who lives next door at number 34 Rathbone Road.   The letters are never answered and so become more like a diary, chronicling Eliza’s thoughts; as the letters continue, they get longer and more involved, and hardly letters at all.  Gardam is the author of Old Filth, and this earlier novel has all the same British flavor.

the tambourines

Gardam cleverly disguises real incidents with fabulous illusions, and, after a while, you will wonder which is true.  When a well-meaning neighbor says,  “Eliza…We’re all so worried…We’ve been having meetings about you…” – you will think the ruse is up, but then Gardam pulls you right back in with another one of Eliza’s fantastic tales about phantom pregnancies, babies stolen, Hospice patients as art critics –  sprinkled with catty comments that seem real enough…

“There must be something in his head except parish difficulties.  After all it takes six years to become a priest – long as a vet. He must have learned something about sick souls…”

Funny or hysterical?  Observations or delusions?  Eliza’s state of mind goes in and out, from the past to the present and back.  You’re never sure what she is making up and what she imagines, but you know – and so does she – that something is not right.

“Hallucinations are not always produced by drugs you know, or by brain-disease.  They are often wilfully conjured…”

In the end, like Chris Bohjalian’s Double Bind, all is revealed and explained.  You’ll find out the significance of  the house at Number 34, and all the pieces of Eliza’s story – real and imagined – come together.  You will want to read it again to catch the clues.

After reading Old Filth, I became a fan of Gardam.  Luckily, she’s a prolific writer.

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Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand

Have you yearned for a discussion – with someone who would be interesting as well as interested? Having lunch with your smart, serious, sensible old Uncle could be a tonic – especially if he is of the old school British.

Helen Simonson’s Major Pettigrew is someone you would want in your life – if only to call now and then for advice, or to be with to remind yourself that the civilized world still exists.    But, just like your “Dutch Uncle,” Major Pettigrew is more than he seems, and Simonson expertly introduces you to the weaknesses and pride countered by his loyalty and good heart.

In Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, the Major – retired military widower – has just suffered the death of his younger brother.   His loss is appropriately and respectfully acknowledged with some stinging asides in the Major’s thoughts about his relatives that will bring a smile to anyone who has had the experience.

A pair of antique shooting pistols fuel the action. The Major sentimentally wants to reunite the pair, divided on the death of his father between his now dead brother and himself – to be reunited and passed on through the generations.   Seems this is not in writing, so the rest of the family has already planned the profit from their sale.

Most of the characters meet the stereotype they are meant to be: the Major’s dead brother’s wife, prone to hysteria and greed; his son, striving to be modern and dismiss his father as stuffy; the gold-digging, gorgeous, shrewd American PR fiancée; and the American mogul intent on commercializing an old country village for his own profit.   But Simonson cleverly adds dimension to the key supports – giving them strength from good example and lessons learned from the principals – Major Pettigrew and Mrs. Ali.

In Mrs. Ali, newly widowed herself, an insatiable reader and lover of truth and beauty, the Major finds a soul-mate.   As she suffers the ignorant prejudice of the local women busy-bodies, Mrs. Ali quietly and wisely becomes the stabilizing force in the Major’s life – forcing him to be the man he only pretends to be.

The story seems all quite British in the beginning, and you might think you are settling into a cozy read by the fire – think again.   Unexpected crisis in routine events will keep you wondering if your predictions for the Major were really correct – they probably are – but Simonson cleverly pulls you back now and then to wonder.    Bucolic scenes of tea and scones are balanced with pre-schoolers running into blasts from a duck-shoot, a riot at a country club dance between insensitive Brits and Pakistani still stinging from the horrors of Partition, and a crazed octogenarian woman wielding a weapon.

Major Pettigrew does have a last stand, and it’s more literal than you’d expect.    Simonson melds her British humor with American drama, and you’ll keep the characters in mind long after you’ve finished reading, and wonder how they are getting on.