Fay Weldon was the writer of the pilot episode of “Upstairs, Downstairs,” which means that, without her contributions to popular culture, there would be no “Downton Abbey,” so we all owe her a great many thanks. Her latest novel, THE NEW COUNTESS, is a continuation of a story begun two books ago with HABITS OF THE HOUSE and LONG LIVE THE KING. THE NEW COUNTESS finds Lord Robert and Lady Isobel planning for a visit from the King and Queen, and, of course, nothing is going to go smoothly. Weldon focuses her pursed attention on those who live upstairs and downstairs at a grand estate, and the many ways in which their lives entangle and untangle as the old guard fights to carry on traditions that are becoming oh so swiftly a thing of the past.
"[Weldon's] eye for detail, ear for dialogue, and abililty to build characters until they are practically standing in front of us they are so real, are very much intact in THE NEW COUNTESS."
American Minnie O’Brien has a son with Arthur, son of the Lord and Lady, and his young heir, James, is being brought up amongst the old world customs of his forefathers, rather than the more unrestrained passions of his American ancestors. His mother is visiting the estate and making it clear that she understands nothing of the protocols and procedures that each person subscribe to in such a regal world. Minnie is a bit of a loose cannon, as all stories like this perceive Americans to be. But her uncouth actions upstairs are matched by the craziness downstairs at the same time.
The Lord and Lady’s niece has told everyone that she believes the house is cursed. This information has long-running consequences, beginning with problems with the King’s arrival and the subsequent financial difficulties that these issues may cause for the Lord and Lady.
“[Minnie] ran away from her life and into her future. She ran blindly, all else blotted out by a vision sealed into her mind and she knew she would never get rid of: the sight of Arthur on the stairs handing a towel to a near-naked girl whose hair hung loose around her shoulders.” Ooh, call the good taste police! Indecent ladies hanging with decent ladies’ husbands? Minnie’s world unravels quite completely during her trip to the estate. However, her distress is echoed in the lives of pretty much everyone who comes upon this property, making Adele’s claim that the house is cursed a real possibility.
Weldon takes a time-honored tradition, which she helped to make popular in the latter 20th century, and turns it on its ear one more time. Her eye for detail, ear for dialogue, and abililty to build characters until they are practically standing in front of us they are so real, are very much intact in THE NEW COUNTESS. In these days of the “one-percenters,” it is definitely fun to read yet another story about how messed up the lives of rich people can be. And, like all good parlor farce, there are so many ways in which they can mess things up, giving clearance to a well-wrought and comic story that will entertain you from page one. Minnie’s shocking discovery takes her on an adventure she didn’t prepare for --- and we go along for the ride willingly.
Weldon has fashioned yet another fun and frantic look at the wild side of British society. THE NEW COUNTESS should be a joy for readers who have helped themselves to the first two books in the series, as well as those just coming into step with these characters.
Reviewed by Jana Siciliano on December 20, 2013