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.
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?”
“It was covered with blood,” said Reginald. “I didn’t notice the original color.”
“Was it ecru, perhaps?” asked Belinda. “Ecru is all the rage.”
As petty concerns like this mix with more profound, Weldon‘s characters prove themselves to be an all too-believable mix of good impulses and bad, selfless and selfish. Part of the fun is that everyone gets (and for the most part takes) the opportunity to behave quite badly. There’s plenty of Nobility in this tale, but precious little nobility. Weldon, at 81, holds no illusions about her fellow human beings. No doubt growing up behind the scenes in a Great House took care of that.
As one Dilberne maid observes, “Those who change the sheets know the truth.“
Weldon’s knowledge of the era and understanding of what makes people tick makes the Dilbernes' world at once utterly strange and strangely familiar. But it is always entertaining. And why not? You can enjoy what is essentially an uber-classy soap opera and learn a bit of history at the same time. But the real lesson to be learned here is that while customs and habits change, human nature does not. Toilets may replace bedpans and automobiles may make carriages obsolete, but the way people behave (and misbehave) endures.
Have we made progress? Absolutely. But, hints Weldon, perhaps not quite as much as we’d like to believe.
The great house is made ready, the King arrives, and the saga culminates in a shooting party at which an event which is totally unexpected (but entirely plausible) occurs and Alice Keppel shows her mettle.
Feminist scholar Gina Barreca, in a recent appraisal of Weldon, after concluding that Weldon’s “incisive, funny, truth-telling places her among Woolf, Mansfield, Bowen and Spark,” questions why this exceptional writer isn't taken more seriously.
Berreca’s conclusion? “We often value authors who write wisely, but, in fact, not terribly well.”
Happily, here, Weldon does both. It isn’t necessary to read the first two books in her Edwardian trilogy to enjoy “The New Countess.” But, after devouring this one, you’ll surely want to.
Check out a preview of the audiobook: