The New Countess
'The New Countess,' the final book in Fay Weldon's trilogy set in the Edwardian era, showcases Weldon's deep knowledge of both the era and human nature.
Who was Alice Keppel? She was the longtime mistress of King Edward VII. She’s also responsible for several plot twists in British novelist Fay Weldon’s The New Countess, the final book in her engaging Edwardian trilogy, which follows the fortunes of the upper-class Dilberne family and their servants at the turn of the last century.Skip to next paragraph
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It's England, 1905. Lord Robert and Lady Isobel Dilberne have just a few months to prepare their 100-room country estate for a first-ever visit from King Edward and Queen Alexandra along with a crowd of friends and servants. And, of course, Keppel and her husband George (who very much approves of his wife‘s royal liaison).
What does modernization, circa 1905, entail? Electric lighting! Running water! Toilets! Walls must be demolished and chimneys repaired, Victoriana replaced with modern furnishings, and solemn family portraits banished so the walls can be graced with colorful paintings by Degas.
This transformation presents quite a challenge, both financially and emotionally, to Lord and Lady Dilberne. Even more of a challenge, however, is the behavior of their grown children. Daughter Rosina, a strong-willed bohemian who goes about with a parrot on her shoulder (whose messes the servants complain bitterly to each other about having to clean up), cannot be deterred from her plan to publish a scandalously smutty book. Meanwhile, son Arthur (whom the press has dubbed “the Motoring Viscount”) has provoked a family crisis by paying far more attention to his fledgling car company than to his lovely wife, Minnie, a former Chicago meat-packing heiress.
Minnie’s mother, a loud but lovable ex-Burlesque Queen, arrives from Chicago to rescue her despairing daughter just as the final preparations for the Royal visit are falling into place.
If a certain wildly popular British TV show comes to mind, that’s no surprise. Weldon co-wrote the pilot of “Upstairs Downstairs,” from whose DNA "Downton Abbey" was undeniably cloned. Her Edwardian trilogy, told with wit, wry observation and fascinating period detail, is just as absorbing.
Weldon, who grew up the daughter of a housekeeper in a grand London townhouse, writes with an insider’s knowledge about the concerns of that now-vanished world, as in this scene when Reginald tells the other servants about a “rare argy-bargy” (knock-down fight) between “Master Arthur” and a rival, in which Arthur loses a tooth, which Grace, a ladies maid, retrieves and wraps in her white hanky.
Conversation immediately turns from the conflict itself to the inappropriate nature of Grace’s handkerchief.
“Men have white hankies,” said Lucy. “to blow their noses on. Ladies have lace hankies just to dab. What was Grace doing with a white?”