British author Fay Weldon may not have started the American craze for all things royal, but she has certainly been responsible for stoking it.
The daughter of a London housekeeper, Weldon first used her intimate knowledge of the underside of the English gentry when she penned the pilot of the hugely popular “Upstairs Downstairs” series in 1971, and she has built a career skewering the various strata of society.
Now, as we American viewers wait for the January premiere of its successor, “Downton Abbey,” Weldon throws us another tidbit, full of titled misbehavior and the secrets that only the servants know.
“The New Countess,” the final volume of a historical trilogy, opens in 1905 and once again showcases the fictional Dilberne family in crisis. As in the earlier books, “The Habits of the House” and “Long Live the King,” money lies at the root of the problem.
Keeping up the Belgrave townhouse as well as Dilberne Court, the earl’s country estate, is expensive. And while the earl, Lord Dilberne, may have resolved the basic bookkeeping issues through the marriage of his son and heir Arthur to an American heiress in the last book, as this one opens he quickly makes more problems for himself and his growing brood.
Mingling with royalty at the Newcastle races, Lord Dilberne ends up inviting the new king, Edward VII, to hunt at Dilberne Court that winter, much to his wife’s dismay. Lady Isobel, after all, knows that the rundown estate must not only provide for the comfort of the ailing king and his large retinue, it must also meet the standards of the king’s impeccably stylish mistress, Alice Keppel.
Isobel recalls the jaded words of another countess: “When an English gentleman grows too old for sex, his romantic impulses find their outlet in the mud and cold of the shooting party.” However, she cannot discount any possibility, especially since her own social standing is at stake.
And since the new century has brought with it all sorts of modern conveniences, that means extensive plumbing and heating renovations. It is this refurbishing that will strain the Dilberne finances — as well as the tempers of all involved.
But more complications are afoot. For starters, the Dilbernes’ unconventional daughter Rosina has returned widowed from Australia and moved in with bohemian friends in London.
And Arthur’s marriage to the American Minnie is also strained, first by the young lord’s enthusiasm for his fledgling auto-manufacturing plant and then by her jealousy over a suspected affair. This issue has its roots in Arthur’s misbehavior earlier in the trilogy, but the misperception is still somewhat supported by the supposed evidence in this new volume.
In general, this novel works well as a stand-alone, although hints and references will tempt interested readers to return to the other books. The basic arc of the king’s visit is mirrored by Minnie’s departure, both crises that will be resolved by the end.
In the meantime, Weldon amuses with her usual mix of courtly language undercut by snark, as the narrative swings from Isobel’s proper (and often panicked) voice to Minnie’s emotional one, with Rosina, Arthur, and even Alice Keppel all joining in at various points.
A summation near the end by an outsider, a police inspector, ties some of the loose ends together rather too quickly, but the actual conclusion unfolds nicely, and almost naturally with two major ceremonial life events. That times are changing is also acknowledged, along with the perpetual realization that, as one maid notes, [t]hose who change the sheets know the truth.”