Sunday, December 9, 2012

Habits of the House, by Fay Weldon. St. Martin’s Press, 2012

Ever since reading (and watching the TV series) ‘The Forsyte Saga’ in my teens I’ve had a passion for late Victorian/Edwardian British stories. I was very excited to receive a copy of ‘Habits of the House’ set in 1899.

The story revolves around the household of the Earl of Dilberne. He himself is deeply in debt, from both business ventures gone badly and from trying to keep up with his friend, the spendthrift Price of Wales; his wife, Isobel, daughter of a tradesman who brought money to the marriage, spends on clothing and dinners. His daughter, Rosina, spends her time going to lectures of the leftist kind and despises the moneyed class while enjoying the advantages it offers. His son and heir Arthur cares nothing for business or politics, freely spending on clothing, his mistress, and his steam powered automobiles. When the latest venture, a gold mine in Africa, is taken and flooded by the Boers, bankruptcy looms. The earl and his lady’s reaction to this is that their children (in their 20s) must marry for money. Everyone has their own opinion on how this should be accomplished, including the staff of servants who have a surprising influence on the lives of their employers.

What follows is a tangled web of greed, bigotry, and lies. There are no blameless characters here, but neither are there any monsters. These are all just flawed human beings, most of whom are fairly decent at heart. They are muddling through their lives, regretting their pasts, and trying to puzzle out what kind of future the want. These are not particularly deep characters; they are rather sketchy.

I enjoyed the book. Despite the unusual layout – a lot of very short chapters, each devoted to a character’s actions in a short period of time- sometimes as little as an hour- it reads fast. The entire book takes place over the span of a little less than two months- but the first 86 pages is devoted to a single day. At the beginning I did have trouble at times figuring out which character was which. There is enough description to set the reader firmly in the era. Standing outside of the time, the author skewers the manners and prejudices of the time. Is it great literature? No. Is it good enough that I’ll be seeking out the next two volumes? Yes. 

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