Literary Anglophiles will find lots to love in Hannah Rothschild’s new novel.
The House of Trelawney of the title refers to Trelawney Castle. It has — or rather had — everything an English stately home should have: “A room for each day of the year, eleven staircases, four miles of hallways.”
Just as splendid are its grounds: “Four hundred acres of medieval oak woods, deep cushions of moss laced with streams chasing over granite boulders, … a perfectly round deep lake fed by a waterfall.” Lots of lovely English flowers grow there — snowdrops, bluebells, wild orchids. Perhaps most thrilling of all to devoted readers of country house novels, Trelawney Castle is in Cornwall, not far from the sea. Cue shades of Daphne du Maurier’s “Rebecca” and Winston Graham’s “Poldark.”
This astounding house is “the physical embodiment of the wealth and influence” of the Trelawney family who have lived in it for 800 years. The 24th Earl of Trelawney is the current head of the family. He and his wife Clarissa sit in state in their own suite, while their daughter-in-law Jane does the work previously done by 85 servants.
The thing is Trelawney Castle is not what it was. Most rooms are shut and the garden is returning to wilderness. Farms have been sold to raise cash and paintings have been auctioned, but the roof still leaks and the hot water system mostly doesn’t work.
Neither does the earl of course, but his son and heir Kitto assumes he is doing so when he invests money in things. At the start of the novel he claims to be on to a winner. Now if his sister Blaze had said that the results could well have been spectacular because she is a financial whiz in the City of London. Kitto is a dope.
Unfortunately, Blaze is estranged from the family, including her former best friend Jane. Her other best friend was the spectacularly beautiful Anastasia who long ago married a maharajah. Now she writes to both Blaze and Jane saying that she is dying and will they take care of her only child Ayesha. Jane already has three children she can barely support and Blaze has a career that leaves no space for a teenager. Nonetheless Anastasia’s daughter Ayesha arrives.
That’s one seemingly huge problem. The other is Kitto’s investment. It disappears in the 2007 financial crash, so now the family is in effect bankrupt.
All of this makes for a good plot, and one of Hannah Rothschild’s strengths is her nimble handling of it. She paces it perfectly, laying out the history of the Trelawneys and their castle vividly, and timing the orchestration of characters and events at a brisk tempo, switching attention from time to time between Jane’s travails at the castle and Blaze’s in the stock market.
Though Blaze is the most financially successful of the Trelawneys, like the rest of them she is stuck in pattern of behaving or thinking that is not in her own best interests. While she has succeeded brilliantly in a male-dominated profession, she has sacrificed too much for it. Now she must face professional adversity while also responding to a man who is seriously attracted to her. The descriptions of her wavering actions suggest how success has distorted her character.
Jane’s situation is often moving also. Though she has toiled to keep sufficient corners of the house going, she has been rewarded only by the indolence and ingratitude of her parents-in-law, the feckless self-indulgence of her husband, and the horribleness of her eldest son, who will in turn inherit the lot.
The depiction of other characters is less successful. Tuffy, the earl’s sister, has made a better fist of her life, but she is not well rounded, rarely moving out of the stereotyped role of the female scholar. Similarly, Anastasia is always depicted as a siren and Ayesha, who has inherited many of her skills, is scarcely credible.
Lovers of “Downton Abbey” will almost certainly enjoy “House of Trelawney,” and may reflect that had their favorite program been set in the late-20th and early-21st centuries, we might have seen Downton sharing the fate of Trelawney Castle.
For others this story of dysfunctional aristocrats — many of whom have never done a hand’s turn to keep their house in shape, their money productive or their family happy — may well seem irrelevant to our current times, even though the author makes clear that most of the Trelawney’s miseries are their own indolent fault.
Or perhaps, when current times seem full of intractable problems and short on answers perhaps a bit of escapism tinged with schadenfreude, seen here by a sharp eye and seasoned with a tart tongue, may be just what’s needed.
• Claire Hopley is a writer and editor in Amherst, Massachusetts.
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HOUSE OF TRELAWNEY
By Hannah Rothschild
Knopf, $27.95, 416 pages
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