Habits of the House
Our fascination with the early 20th century endures. “If you like Downton Abbey you’ll love this,” trumpets the sticker on the cover of Fay Weldon’s new novel, which promises to be the first of three set between 1899 and 1906. Habits of the House takes place in London over several weeks during late 1899. The characters and plot are familiar: the lady of the house, born into trade but married into the aristocracy for love and now hidebound by the rules of class; her husband, gambling with his friend the Prince of Wales, and losing the family fortune in an ill-fated South African gold mine; their heir, obsessed with his steam car and his mistress; the daughter espousing causes and keeping in her room a parrot trained to squawk “Votes for Women”. In their need for money, the family turns to the O’Briens, whose fortune comes from Chicago slaughterhouses; mother and daughter are in London, the former hilariously vulgar and warm-hearted, the latter demure but with a past.
Adopting the authorial viewpoint throughout, sometimes wry or cynical, Weldon moves the focus like a camera lens from one character to another, revealing thoughts and motivations, including the stock cast below stairs who hate any upset to the lives of their employers or the routine of the house. As if a 21st-century reader needs reminding, the book shows the arrogance and self-belief of the aristocracy, the injustices of a fossilised system. However, I did not find the characters, storyline or writing engaging enough for any of it to matter. Perhaps, after all, this was the author’s intention.