The Trelawneys can trace their roots back to 1179 and used to own huge swathes of southern England. Now they're penniless, Trelawney Castle is falling down and they all hate each other. But when an illegitimate Trelawney is thrust upon them, along with an Amercian hedge-fund manager hell bent on revenge, things get worse. This slyly comic novel is a great dissection of class and provilege.
Rothschild, whose ebullient debut The Improbability of Love was set in the art world and won the Wodehouse prize for comic fiction, takes us once again to a sphere of vulgar greed and tasteful snobbery. The beautiful, vivacious and apparently virginal Ayesha is Trouble. The Trelawneys all have crises of their own, involving money, and their loss of it. An old enemy is prowling round, bent on revenge for a decades-old snub at Oxford, and his machinations involve Jane’s dim-witted husband and Blaze’s job. The dialogue and plot move at a cracking pace, and the sympathetically drawn characters are oven-ready for a TV series... Fun of this kind is irresistible, even if its mildly satirical portrait of unearned privilege also palls. The problems real families in Cornwall face go far beyond the scope of this novel, but Rothschild’s tale is a lively and entertaining addition to its literature of escapism.
Jilly Cooper fans (and who isn’t?) will love the unashamedly upmarket settings and posh characters. A romcom to beat the winter blues: funny, sharply-observed and boho-chic glamorous.
It can be baggy, too – with so many characters to juggle, Rothschild snoozes some sub-plots for significant amounts of time. But it’s a satisfying read, with plenty of good one-liners, and a refreshing take on the “prison of inheritance” raw deal faced by most fictional aristocrats. Kitto’s estranged sister, Blaze, wants the crumbling castle to “stand as a cautionary tale of what happened to aristocrats who failed to work and overlooked the realities of change and progress”. But in a sly twist, it’s the Countess, the least evolved member of the family, who ends up prospering the most.
Like Rothschild’s debut novel, The Improbability of Love, House of Trelawney wraps up a story of love and friendship in a gentle satire of entitlement. But where the former skewered the art world, Rothschild’s new book takes a prod at the aristocracy as the Trelawney family attempt to maintain their crumbling Cornish country pile and status. Though good fun – there’s a proper baddie for a beautiful teenager to take down – the title never elicits much sympathy for its upper-class caricatures.
Blaze, the shunned daughter of the Earl is the link between old money and new. She works for Kerkyra Capital and is the only one willing to flag the impending doom of the markets. That central tension between what the reader knows and what the characters know is a powerful tool for making fun of wealth and wealthy institutions. Rothschild also gives a wink and a nod towards future money. When Mark Sparrow, grandson of a former Trelawney scullery maid, invests all his savings in technology, we know what fortune is to come for him. But perhaps we are also being invited to envision what might come after: Silicon Valley in decay, senile robots taking their last breaths. Great ruin.
Can these dreadful people and their horrid old castle ever find redemption? It looks impossible at first, but Rothschild teases out the green shoots with skill and humour (she won the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse prize for comic fiction for her novel The Improbability of Love). Her characters make unexpected discoveries about themselves — hidden talents that could lead to money, or at least fulfilment. In the present century, the dilapidation of their ancestral home might be a bigger asset than its historical splendour.
House of Trelawney is, in other words, an oddly uneven novel. There are coups de foudre, galloping horses, erotic cornfield romps and scheming beauties that might not be out of place in a Mills & Boon romance. A queasy reverence for blue blood also rears its head: the self-made financier will never have the “elusive, desirable and unquantifiable accolade — class” that the Trelawneys naturally possess (something to do with labradors and shooting). And yet this is also a charming satire that, save a few stodgy passages about money, is never dull.
Rothschild — a member of the banking dynasty and presumably no stranger to warped families and staggering wealth — is a witty, stylish storyteller and her overall message definitely feels timely: “Far from making any of them rich, wealth had impoverished them all.”