From the author of The Improbability of Love comes a dazzling novel both satirical and moving, about an eccentric, dysfunctional family of English aristocrats and their crumbling stately home, demonstrating how the lives and hopes of women can be shaped by the ties of family and love.
For more than seven hundred years, the vast, rambling Trelawney Castle in Cornwall--turrets, follies, a room for every day of the year, four miles of corridors and 500,000 acres--was the magnificent and grand "three dimensional calling card" of the earls of Trelawney. By 2008, it is in a complete state of ruin due to the dulled ambition and the financial ineptitude of twenty-four earls, two world wars, the Wall Street crash, and inheritance taxes. Still: the heir to all of it, Kitto, his wife, Jane, their three children, their dog, Kitto''s ancient parents, and his aunt Tuffy Scott, an entomologist who studies fleas, all manage to live there and (barely) keep it going.
Four women dominate the story: Jane; Kitto''s sister, Blaze, who left Trelawney and made a killing in finance in London, the wildly beautiful, seductive, and long-ago banished Anastasia and her daughter, Ayesha. When Anastasia sends a letter announcing that her nineteen-year-old daughter, Ayesha, will be coming to stay, the long-estranged Blaze and Jane must band together to take charge of their new visitor--and save the house of Trelawney. But both Blaze and Jane are about to discover that the house itself is really only a very small part of what keeps the family together.
“The idea of eccentric British aristocrats in a crumbling mansion is at the heart of some of literature’s greatest works . . . . Rothschild’s book is the latest in a long line of novels by the likes of Jane Austen and Evelyn Waugh.”
—Adam Rathe, Town & Country (“How one new novel gets British money exactly right”)
“Irresistible . . . . Rothschild’s tale is lively and entertaining.”
--Amanda Craig, The Guardian
"Part comedy of manners, part serious meditation on money and gender roles,
House of Trelawney is both deeply thought-provoking and thoroughly fun."
“A real page turner . . . sparklingly acerbic social satire . . . . Funny and absorbing,
House of Trelawney is the perfect antidote to a grey, Scottish winter’s day.”
—John Badenhorst, The Courier & Advertiser
“Evelyn Waugh meets the love child of Richard Curtis and the brilliant Joanna Trollope.”
—Geordie Greig, The Daily Mail
“Rothschild is a witty, stylish storyteller and her overall message feels timely.”
—Lucy Atkins, The Sunday Times
“Snappy and sexy.”
—Lionel Barber, Former Editor of The Financial Times
“This canny comedy of manners straddles the worlds of high finance and the crumbling aristocracy, braiding love, revenge and market meltdown . . . generous-hearted, it delights from start to finish.”
—Hephzibah Anderson, The Daily Mail
“Rothschild is a writer of high intelligence . . . .
House of Trelawney says a lot about the dangers of dwelling on past entitlement and the importance of unsentimental realism.”
—Kate Saunders, The Times
"Nothing is left out in this madcap . . . novel, which parodies British aristocracy on one hand and the social-climbing world of new money on the other. There are odd, unlikely romances, a suicide, and babies born out of wedlock . . . Ms. Rothschild is an intelligent writer and an elegant prose stylist. The first female chair of the National Gallery, she describes her characters’ physical characteristics with the eye of someone who’s spent a lifetime looking carefully at paintings . . . Britain, that “sceptered isle,” is a shadow of its former self. But one thing the British haven’t lost is their sense of humor, and Ms. Rothschild provides a large dose of it in this quirky satire.” --
Moira Hodgson, The Wall Street Journal
“A gripping saga about a once grand, now decaying, family in Cornwall whose house is literally falling down around their ears.”
—Lynn Barber, The Telegraph
“Rothschild is a mischievous narrator and this story is pure pleasure from the word go.”
—Stylist Online (Best Books of 2020)
“Rothschild’s engaging tale
House of Trelawney cleverly satirizes an unconventional aristocratic clan who have run into money troubles.”
—Martin Chilton, The Independent Online
“This slyly comic novel is a great dissection of class and privilege.”
“Curl up and lose yourself in this hugely entertaining satire of a deeply dysfunctional family of aristocrats desperate to save their crumbling Cornwall home.”
“[Rothschild] paces [her novel] perfectly, laying out the history of the Trelawneys and their castle vividly, and timing the orchestration of characters and events at a brisk tempo . . . 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, The Washington Times
“[A] rollicking tale . . . . 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.”
--Wendy Holden, Scottish Daily Mail
“Rothschild’s style has been compared to comic writers such as Waugh and Mitford, which are apt in terms of both style and milieu, but comparisons can also be made to Austen and Dickens, as she shares their ability to create comic characters and to then put those characters in situations that allows the author to make satirical/social commentary . . . . an intelligent and entertaining romp.”
--Caroline Percy, The Nerd Daily
Wednesday 4th June 2008
Trelawney Castle, home to the same family for eight hundred years, sits on a bluff of land overlooking the South Cornish sea. Since their ennoblement in 1179, the Earls of Trelawney used wealth and stealth to stay on the winning side of history; ruthlessly and unscrupulously switching allegiances or bribing their way to safety and positions of authority. The castle was their three-dimensional calling card, the physical embodiment of their wealth and influence. Each Earl added an extension until it was declared the grandest, if not the finest, stately home in the county of Cornwall.
In summer months, until the First World War, it was the custom of the family and guests to take the Trelawney barge from the Trelawney boathouse, through Trelawney land, past Trelawney follies and temples, to Trelawney Cove where they could use the seaside house (Little Trelawney Castle) or sail the yacht (the
Trelawney). In the winter, the same ilk would hunt with the Trelawney foxhounds or shoot game raised on the Trelawney Estate. At that time, the family were so landed and powerful that they could travel from Trelawney to Bath, from the south coast to the Bristol Channel, without stepping off their own domain. This swathe of England became known as Trelawneyshire, an area of 500,000 acres including forty miles of coastline. With the advent of the railway, those family members who chose to go as far as London (most refused and who could blame them) would travel from Trelawney Station in a private train stamped inside and out with the Trelawney coat of arms.
By the early nineteenth century, the castle had expanded sufficiently to have a room for each day of the year, eleven staircases and four miles of hallways. After King George III’s favourite mistress became hopelessly lost in the maze of corridors and nearly died from hypothermia, guests were, thenceforth, given a miniature crested silver casket containing different-coloured confetti to sprinkle on the floor, so as to leave a personal trail to and from their bedrooms.
The Victorian diarist Rudyard Johnson, a regular guest, wrote: “The castle is made of four main blocks, each built a century apart in markedly different styles. Part of the amusement of Trelawney is sleeping in an Elizabethan bedroom, breakfasting in a Jacobean hall, taking tea in a Regency conservatory and dancing in a Georgian ballroom. For those who like a morning constitutional, the battlement walk is a perfect 400-yard perambulation.” The respected eighteenth-century architectural historian J. M. Babcock dismissed the castle as “a vomitorium of conflicting architectural styles, reflecting the whims of wealthy, ill-educated and self-indulgent aristocrats.”
Until the early twentieth century, rooms were lit by candle or oil lamps and warmed by open fires. Hot water was prepared in vast cauldrons on stoves in the basement and carried in buckets to the bathrooms. Even human waste, kept in porcelain dishes mounted in wooden boxes or cupboards, was disposed of by (a servant’s) hand. Eighty-five members of domestic staff were employed to carry out those tasks, including a butler, housekeeper, kitchen maids, footmen, chars and a clock man; outside there were sixty more, ranging from gardeners and grooms to mole catchers and coachmen, and even a bear and camel keeper. In 1920 the decision was taken to instal central heating, plumbing and electricity. It was a Sisyphean task, started but never finished. Only the Georgian wing was modernised, providing nine bathrooms for eighty-four bedrooms and a total of eleven radiators.
The castle made its own music: pipes hissed and gurgled; house-parties filled the septic tanks under the cellars; and a constant plop and gurgle underscored every activity. Wide wooden floorboards let out little squeaks and groans as they shrank and expanded in changing temperatures. Wind whistled round the crenellations, storms rattled windowpanes. The huge boilers in the basement shuddered while the water tanks in the attics bubbled and whooshed. Little wonder that the family thought of their home as a sentient being: in their eyes, Trelawney was far more than bricks and mortar.
The beauty of the interiors paled next to Trelawney’s setting. To the north of the castle were four hundred acres of medieval oak woods, set in deep cushions of moss laced with streams chasing over granite boulders. In the heart of the forest there was a perfectly round and deep lake, fed by a waterfall. At different times of the year, the glades were carpeted with flowers—crocuses, snowdrops, bluebells, wild garlic and rare orchids. In these Elysian settings lived native fallow, roe and red deer, thirty types of songbird, thirty-four varieties of butterfly, sixteen different species of moths, as well as foxes, badgers, otters, stoats, weasels, mice, voles, moles, slow-worms and snakes.
To the east and west were undulating meadows dotted with sheep and cows and also arable fields. For eight centuries this rich and fertile area was the breadbasket of the West Country and provided added income to the family’s coffers. It was the southern perimeter, however—some sixty acres of landscaped garden leading down to the estuary—which guests recalled with awe. Successive generations of Earls and their wives had tamed and reshaped the terrain, creating walks and waterways, avenues, terraces, sunken gardens, raised beds, topiary, wild-flower meadows, exotic palmeries, carpet bedding and a 24-acre walled kitchen garden. Wending through the pleasure grounds were streams, waterfalls and, to the south, a vast rhododendron and azalea forest surrounded by ancient laurels. Vistas and views were punctuated with Doric temples and triumphal arches. There were secret grottos and fierce fountains that, by an ingenious natural system of displacement, shot jets of water more than fifty feet into the air. The combination of the manicured and the wild, the conflagration of man’s determined hand and nature’s attributes, created an unforgettable experience. Trelawney was, everyone agreed, the most captivating setting in the British Isles.
As the centuries tripped by, the Earls of Trelawney, their senses and ambition dulled by years of pampered living, failed to develop other skills. Of the twenty-four Earls, the last eight had been dissolute and bereft of any business acumen. Their financial ineptitude, along with two world wars, the Wall Street Crash, three divorces and inheritance taxes, had dissipated the family’s fortune. Bit by bit the accoutrements of wealth disappeared. Servants went to war, not to be replaced. Farms were sold along with the London mansion. The private train and barge were left to rust and rot. Wings of the castle were closed up. Little Trelawney Castle was sold and became a hotel.
The good paintings and furniture were auctioned off and all that remained were their scars: discoloured squares and rectangles on walls or awkward absences in rooms. The only objects left were those without financial value, testaments to the whims and enthusiasms of generations of Trelawneys—such as the enormous stuffed polar bear in the west entrance hall, its fur and fangs turned yellow by time.
The tapestries in the Great Hall and corridors, formerly a riot of vibrantly coloured woven silks, had faded to monochromic pastels and hung in shreds. Worn-through carpets revealed wooden floorboards. Horsehair stuffing and rusty springs poked out of sofas. Broken chairs lay where last used, wooden corpses in a losing battle against maintenance. Red velvet curtains, burnt by sunlight, had turned a uniform grey. Windows were obscured by the march of ivy and bramble on the outer walls. In some places the ceilings had fallen in, exposing floors above. Swathes of wallpaper flapped disconsolately in draughty rooms. The present incumbents chose to avoid setting foot in most of the castle. For them locking doors meant keeping decay at bay. Occasionally a great crash of avalanching plaster could be heard falling like a tree in a faraway wood. Once a child had nearly plummeted through a first-floor landing into the morning room below, but these occurrences were quickly forgotten, stashed away in the department of unhelpful memories.
Nowhere was the reversal of the family fortunes more evident than in the once-famous gardens: nature had slowly and inexorably taken back her land. The waterways were choked with lily pads; the ponds silted up; the hedges, now unclipped, spread across paths; the carefully manicured beds had gone to seed; the yew and beech hedges were blowsy; the rhododendron and azalea, fighting each other for light, had grown tall and raggedy. The fountains spluttered. Buddleia ran amok. The kitchen-garden vegetables had bolted years before. The temples and arches were covered with ivies and vines.
Amidst the chaos and decrepitude inside and out, one relatively small patch of garden remained beautifully and obsessively tended, and on this June afternoon of 2008, Jane, the Viscountess Tremayne, daughter-in-law of the 24th Earl of Trelawney, wife of the heir Kitto, worked diligently amongst the roses, refusing to admit defeat against the army of encroaching weeds. For her, keeping control of this area of garden was a form of therapy; she found double-digging and deadheading calming. That morning, a seemingly innocuous letter, written on two sheets of airmail onion paper, had been so upsetting that she’d taken the first opportunity to come outside with a trowel and a pair of clippers.
Jane Tremayne was forty-one. Her figure was kept trim by the endless stairs of the castle, by tending the garden, seeing to most of the domestic chores, looking after her ageing parents-in-law and her three children, as well as riding and mucking out the last horse in the stables. With fine brown hair beginning to grey around the temples, Jane had pale skin, eyes nearer the colour of grey than blue and weather-beaten rosy cheeks. Had she bothered to take the slightest interest in her appearance, she might have passed as a handsome woman. As it was, with her badly cut hair (kitchen scissors), faded overalls and rough, unmanicured hands, she looked more like a labourer than most people’s idea of an aristocrat.
The family’s Labrador lay supine by the box hedge, occasionally raising its handsome black head to snap half-heartedly at a passing fly. A trained gun dog, Pooter spent most winter weekends with Jane’s husband at someone else’s pheasant shoot (their own had been abandoned in the late 1980s). Though he could not return invitations, Kitto was a valued guest in circles that admired a distinguished title, a first-class shot and a keen drinker. When his master was home, Pooter ignored Jane except at mealtimes. Jane’s three children took much the same line as the Labrador, using their mother as a glorified taxi and meal service. Her elder son Ambrose was in his last year at Harrow but, due to exorbitant public-school fees, her younger son Toby and daughter Arabella had been sent to the local comprehensive.
The letter, when it arrived after breakfast, had sat glaring at her from the fruit bowl on the kitchen table. Jane tried covering it with bananas, a dishcloth and other post. She knew from the elegant writing and the sender’s address who and where it was from. Some sixth sense told her that it was better left unopened or forgotten. Curiosity won; Jane ripped open the envelope. Seeing the writing was as disturbing as walking through a spider’s web; the invisible silken fronds unnerving, repulsive. Turning the pages over, she saw the script started small but became increasingly large and erratic. At school, its author had always won the Best Presentation Award and most other things. There had been prize days when only one child was called up to the podium to collect everything, from the gym to the maths and the history cup.
Jane sat down, cleared a space on the table and spread the pages out in front of her.
Dear Jane, I have often thought about you, Blaze and Trelawney over the last twenty years. Closing her eyes, Jane could hear Anastasia’s lilting voice, so quiet and conspiratorial that you had to lean in, letting her sweet breath brush your face and ears.
I have been living in a magnificent Indian palace called Balakpur, several hundred miles north of Delhi, with my husband the Maharaja and eight of his eleven children. I have two children but my own son is the youngest and won’t inherit the title.
Jane thought about her second son Toby, in many ways a more suitable candidate for the earldom than her firstborn but destined by birth to be the runner-up at Trelawney.
After such a long time, you must be wondering why I’m writing, Anastasia continued.
Jane, I need your help desperately, even if it’s only for old times’ sake, for sentimentality, for human kindness, for the Three Musketeers. Jane’s heart contracted at the mention of their old nickname.
I am dying. Dengue fever has shut down my organs one after another, like lights failing on a dashboard. My husband died a few months ago. On the day of his death, his palace Balakpur, and all chattels, passed to his eldest son. The new Maharaja has banished me and my daughter Ayesha to a tiny cottage hospital on the outskirts of Calcutta. He has kept my son, Ayesha’s half-brother Sachan; I doubt I will ever see my darling boy again.
Jane tried to summon compassion for her friend and her children, but felt nothing other than a sense of foreboding.
As you know, dear Jane, I have no family, no parents, no siblings. You and Blaze and Trelawney will forever be my home. Ayesha has nowhere to go and I am flinging myself on your mercy. Please take her.
Jane read the last paragraph three times. Was Anastasia asking her and Kitto to take on her child? After twenty years? After all that had happened? Jane laughed out loud. There was no way that the daughter was coming to stay. She and Kitto could hardly afford to feed their own children, let alone anyone else’s. Besides, Jane didn’t believe that Anastasia was dying; she probably wanted a holiday from parenthood and who, Jane thought, could blame her.
Now, in the peace and tranquillity of the garden, Jane took out her anger on deadheading roses, including some wild snips at perfectly healthy blooms. Looking at the clipped rose heads around her feet, she decided they were metaphors for lost friendships which, once snipped, couldn’t simply be reattached. Real intimacy was a delicate cloth of shared experiences stitched together by tiny accretions of time, mutual trust and support. It wasn’t something that could be folded, put away and shaken out when the need presented itself. Whatever the three women once enjoyed had lain fallow and untended for so many years that it had shrunk and corroded. At best their friendship was like an old postcard, a tinted seaside scene, imbued only with memory and sentimentality. She, Anastasia and Blaze would never recapture their earlier affinity; their lives and circumstances were too disparate. Whatever Anastasia was implying in her letter, Jane owed her nothing. She also decided not to tell her husband. The less Kitto thought about Anastasia, the more confident Jane felt.