Fay Weldon's new upstairs, downstairs tale

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"Habits of the House" by Fay Weldon (St. Martin's, January 2013)

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HABITS OF THE HOUSE, by Fay Weldon. St. Martin's Press, 314 pp., $25.99.

Though the patriarch of an aristocratic British family married his wife for money, the union has evolved into a genuine love match. Their freethinking, pantaloons-wearing daughter scandalizes the family with her unorthodox ideas and progressive political beliefs. The heir, meant to marry to save the family estate, balks at the match, yet realizes too late that he is truly in love with his intended. ... As the story opens, the family is thrown into turmoil by the arrival of a telegram with devastating news.

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You'd be forgiven for assuming the above is a plot summary of the first season of the British TV series "Downton Abbey," whose third season began on PBS last Sunday. But it also describes "Habits of the House," the first book in Fay Weldon's new trilogy about the Earl and Countess of Dilberne and their two grown children. Of course Weldon can't fairly be accused of imitation; she wrote the pilot episode of "Upstairs Downstairs," the granddaddy of the English aristocracy miniseries and unofficial progenitor of "Downton Abbey."

"Habits of the House" is set in London over six weeks in 1899. Despite an earlier influx of cash from Countess Isobel's father (a lowborn coal miner who struck it rich) the family fortune is in jeopardy from poor investments, overspending and gambling.

Several of the main characters are one-dimensional -- particularly the hedonistic heir, Arthur, who cares for nothing but fine tailored clothing and fast automobiles; and his sister, the reform-minded, self-righteous Rosina. Tessa, the boorish American in search of a titled match for her daughter, is another caricature. Better drawn are the orphaned serving girl Grace, who is more sensible and intelligent than her social superiors, and Minnie, the free-spirited Chicago heiress.

The long-suffering Jewish solicitor Mr. Baum, who wants nothing more than to introduce his lonely wife into the Earl's high society, is repeatedly thwarted by the family's casual anti-Semitism and class snobbery. But despite the prevailing belief that "old wealth and new wealth would never speak the same language," it's clear to the reader that the times are a-changing.

"Habits of the House" seems to have been rather quickly tossed off to cash in on the renewed popularity of the genre. It reads almost like a teleplay -- and would in fact make an entertaining miniseries in its own right. Like "Downton Abbey," with its delightful mingling of highbrow and lowbrow, it is likely to appeal to American readers. Though one suspects Weldon, author of more than 30 books, could have written it in her sleep, "Habits" will be a suitable alternative if Season 3 disappoints.

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