Book review: The New Countess by Fay Weldon

If Downton Abbey is the froth on the upper echelons of early 19th century English society, then Fay Weldon’s Love and Inheritance trilogy is a taste of its richer, darker side.

Thursday, 12th December 2013, 9:00 am
The New Countess by Fay Weldon
The New Countess by Fay Weldon

We have been following the eclectic, aristocratic Dilberne family through their lives and loves, highs and lows since the late 1890s and they can look back over some eyebrow-raising experiences as we join them for an eventful shooting weekend at their run-down country mansion in 1905.

This wry and witty comedy of manners – which includes Habits of the House, Long Live The King and now The New Countess – has been an enchanting tour-de-force from the 82-year-old author and playwright.

Weldon has her finger firmly on the pulse of Edwardian society’s class-driven mores and mannerisms and she revels in exposing their peccadilloes and inherent hypocrisies whilst delivering an acerbically entertaining romp.

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King Edward VII has invited himself and his mistress, Mrs Alice Keppel, to a shooting weekend with the Dilbernes which means that Isobel, the Countess, must turn their crumbling home into a palace fit for a king.

It’s just as well that the family fortunes have been restored by pairing off Viscount Arthur, the handsome, wilful son and heir, with Minnie, a rich and pretty Irish-American heiress from the Chicago stockyard.

But money can’t solve everything... not even a kidnapping. And things go from bad to worse when the servants refuse to condone the King’s morals and Isobel’s daughter Lady Rosina, who is now widowed and wealthy, insists on publishing a scandalous book.

Then, to crown a chapter of disasters, the shadowy past of both Arthur and Minnie rears up to blacken the family name. And when fate deals an unexpected hand in the middle of the royal shooting party, Isobel must consider not only her leading position in society, but her entire future…

Weldon brings to vibrant life the Dilberne household with vivid characterisation, sparkling dialogue and some memorable tableaux – including Mrs Keppel reciting The Charge of the Light Brigade to calm the troubled King who declares ‘That was better than sex. What a wonderful poem!’

Upstairs, downstairs and in my lady’s chamber, The New Countess offers a fun, fascinating and beautifully animated vista onto a time of endings, new beginnings and a world on the cusp of social and political change.

A cleverly wrought and caustic but kindly finale to a wonderful series…

(Head of Zeus, hardback, £14.99)