“House of Trelawney” by Hannah Rothschild

‘It may not take the form of sticks and stones or result in immediate action, but if the collapse is as big as I fear, then old orders will be replaced.’ ‘Crashes are like laxatives. There is nothing like a good round of bankruptcies to get the art market flowing. People like me live off the three Ds: debt, death and divorce.
The two sat in silence for a few minutes, one imagining opportunities, the other foreseeing disaster.

Hannah Rothschild’s latest novel The House of Trelawney is ostensibly about the Trelawney’s and their crumbling manor. It is about three generations living together under one roof. The elderly Viscount and his wife, their son and heir Kitto and his family — Jane, his wife and three children. The youngest generation consists of the abnoxious Ambrose, the sweet and lovable Toby and the sharply intelligent Arabella, a complete misfit in her family. Arabella is much like her grand-aunt, Tuffy, who is modelled on the Dame Miriam Rothschild (1908-2005); a brilliant British naturalist and a world expert on the flea.

It has been touted as a comic look at the decaying aristrocrat way of living but then comic forms of work are really a thinly disguised version of supremely intelligent wit. The House of Trelawney is a superb account of three generations of aristocracy, every generation representative of it’s moment in history. As a result what emerges beautifully is how far each generation has “evolved”. The oldest generation has lived and witnessed aristocracy as all legends about it exist. Splendid social gatherings with the incumbent Viscount not having to think of “work”. The Countess was kept busy managing the large household and the guests. The younger generation consists of the children who are really not very comfortable belonging to the upper most social strata as it seems to have invisble bonds preventing them freedom. The eldest, Ambrose, who is set to inherit the title, is very unhappy at the thought of inheriting a worthless inheritance and a ramshackle manner whose maintenance will require more than a penny to maintain. The second son, sweet and gentle Toby, is lovesick but discovers to his dismay that he is in the crosshairs of a rigid social structure which is creating a rift between the young couple. The youngest and of a difficult temperament is the ever-inquisitive Arabella who drives her mother bats but then to everyone’s joy forges a comfortable relationship with her grand-aunt, a renowned entomologist. The sandwich generation of Kitto and Jane have seen their fortunes disappear rapidly except for their social graces and enviable status they have in society. Kitto married Jane for her money and not love although she had been in love with him since they were fourteen year olds. Yet with their crumbling (mis)fortunes, many of which are brought upon the family by Kitto’s ill-advised investments, it is Jane who is the “fall guy”. Jane is responsible for caregiving of the elderly and very kindly maintaining pretences of their past lifestyle, cooking and cleaning for three teenagers — even if it meant buying the economy pack of mince and feeding it them day in and day out, tackling the every growing pile of bills but making little dent in it, managing the chickens, a horse and a labrador — managing it all even if it stretched her, leaving little time for herself. Until she discovered the perfect hideout for her creative outlet — a printing press. She stumbled upon it shuttered up in one of the erstwhile servants quarters.

Jane had found the printing press ten years earlier while trying to locate the source of a leak in the third ballroom. She’d never been to that section of the fourth floor before and was amazed to discover thirty nearly identical rooms, each almost bare save for twin iron beds and a small cupboard, the stapble furniture of junior domestic staff. Opening the door of Room 128, Jane wondered why, and for that matter how, anyone would heave a laundry mangle to the attic so far from the washing rooms downstairs. Forgetting the search for the leak, she examined the heavy cast-iron table with a large metal roller at one end. Using all her strength, she managed to turn it around, forcing the roller majestically and rustily from one end to another. The contraption must have weighed half a ton. Intrigued, Jane opened the neatly stacked wooden crates lining the wall. They contained blocks of typefaces and letters in different fonts and dried-out bottles of ink. In a nearby cubpard she found some fading printed posters, all related to the suffragette movement and specifically to a women’s march from Penzance to London on 19th June 1913. Jane laughed out loud. Someone had deliberately hidden the press in the furthest maid’s room in the attic, where neither the butler nor any member of the family would dream of venturing. It made her happy to think that, deep within the hear of this ancient bastion of absolute male hegemony, there had existed a small and defiant opposition: a group of feminists prepared to risk their jobs and livelihoods for the rights of their own sex.

Let us not forget the cast of characters also include the absolutely atrocious noveau-riche hedge-fund billionaire Thomlinson Sleet; his third wife, an Indian princess Ayesha who is linked to the family of Trelawneys; Blaze, the incredibly successful financial analyst and sister to Kitto and Joshua Wolfe, the discrete but immensely successful financier. It is a fantastic mix of a very interesting cross-section of society, where irrespective of how much wealth they already possess ( or not), their primary focus is on being financially successful. There are incredibly interesting conversations that have been brilliantly etched by Hannah Rothschild. A sharp understanding of how there is an economic basis to every relationship. Inheriting enviable social titles without money in the bank is meaningless just as is having the ability to buy titles with new money while lacking class. At the same time being gender blind as many of the people in the novel are towards the three strong women — Tuffy, Jane and Blaze with Arabella showing excellent signs of following in their footsteps. Whether related by blood or living together under the same roof makes no difference to most of the extended clan at seeing the wonderful qualities these women possess of retaining their individuality, carving a professional space for themselves as did Tuffy and Blaze or managing home and hearth while being sensitive and caring especially towards the elderly as exemplified by Jane. Whereas the men carry on doing what they know best — the ageing Viscount who in his younger days was known for his ways with women but is now a sad grumbling wreck of his former self; his son Kitto who is presumed to inherit the title lives in his own world as CEO of a bank opting to shuttle between London and the dilapidated manor, hoping in a quick turn of fortune rather than putting in the requisite hard work; Kitto’s sons Ambrose and Toby are still in school. Ambrose is the eldest, educated at a posh school and detested by everyone at home for his snobbery. Toby is the kinder soul who is muddled about being born into the social upper crust while his friends are from the local village. The other characters such as the Dowager Countess Clarissa, the grand-uncle and art dealer Tony, the cook and her grandson are equally critical to the story as they are like the chorus of a play. Yet it is the core group of characters that help connect the dots of the rapidly evolving socio-economic order illustrating the changes that emerge in the clash between the old vs new money. Something that the Rothschilds are probably familiar with — The Rothschild Taste ( NYRB, 25 June 2015)

Being the eldest daughter of Jacob Rothschild, 4th Baron Rothschild, Hannah Rothschild is privileged to have witnessed firsthand the manner in which British artisocracy functions. There are moments in the novel that can only have come from experience and not imagination but are so discreetly woven into the story that it could easily pass off as created dialogue. What makes this novel astoundingly remarkable is the cleverness with which Hannah Rothschild has shown the economic usefulness of women along with their keen ability to survive irrespective of circumstances. It is trait that seems to exist across socio-economic groups; the women do not seem to be burdened by an sense of entitlement and inherited prejudices. They just get on doing what they must. The women mirror much of the men in the story as in the women too represent three different generations and old vs new money but the distinctive feature about the women is that they are far more flexible in their wants and generous in their spend.

21 March 2020

*Note: It has been quite a task writing this review. It has taken much, much longer than expected. More than a week. A week that has eerily coincided with the global markets being horrendously volatile in response to the Coronavirus pandemic. This novel too is set at the time of the market crash of 2008 and the Sars epidemic! Uncanny parallels!

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