“If you liked Downton Abbey, you’ll love this!” reads the sticker on the cover of Fay Weldon’s new novel. It does it a disservice: yes, it’s a period drama (though set a bit earlier than Downton, in the last two years of the 19th century), yes, it surveys the salacious lives of those upstairs and downstairs but what Weldon captures is more thoughtful, more believable.
The story spans three weeks in the aristocratic Diberne household. Lord Dilberne has lost the family money by investing in gold and gambling with the Prince of Wales. The family face financial ruin – unless their children, the sassy Rosina, who has a parrot who’s trained to squawk “Votes for women” and the changeable Arthur, marry into a wealthy family. It appears unlikely with either: Rosina sees marriage as slavery and Arthur’s having it off with his mistress (who might well be having it off with a lot of other people).
This is the first of a trilogy and it will be interesting to see where Weldon goes from here. The period romp is a familiar formula but Weldon’s developed this, providing an accurate window into the lives of the landed gentry and service classes entering the promising 20th century. Just ignore the Downton Abbey sticker.