Set on the eve of the 20th century, Habits of the House is a lyrical, light-hearted tale that highlights Weldon's
abilities as a practitioner of the historical novel. This tale gives us a unique portrait of the upper classes, "those who are up against it as never before." At No. 17 Belgrave Square, Lady Isobel of Dilberne is anxious to get her two children, Arthur and Rosina, married off as soon as possible. Both are just too troublesome, especially young Viscount Arthur, who needs “a wife to grow him up” and to give the children he needs for succession to the Dilberne title.
Stripping down and brutally juxtaposing her characters, Weldon begins the story just as the doorbell of Belgrave Square “rings out of turn.” It is his Lordship, Robert Dilberne himself, who opens the double doors to an ill-tempered Mr. Eric Baum.
Baum, manager of the Dilberne financial estate, imparts the urgent news of the family’s failing African mining investments. Through no fault of his own, fate has landed Robert in this situation. When Baum informs Robert that the estate is in debt to the tune of some thirty thousand pounds, Isabel rises to the occasion
though the annoying arrival of Baum only adds to her shuddering sense of dislocation.
Determined to protect her children, Lady Isabel and her entourage prepare for a ball; His Royal Highness, the Prince of Wales
is to be a special guest. Unfortunately, the habits of Lady Isabel's house are
such that no secret is too dark, no behavior too perverse to be placed on display. Adding to her consternation is
her irritation with Robert, who remains engaged in his “customary distractions,” spending more time in the House of Lords where he's trying in vain to deal with the trouble of the Boers.
Into this familiar scenario comes Grace, Lady Isobel’s prized maid. An expert at garnering gossip from the best servants’ halls, Grace is smart enough to learn about "the bad habits, disagreeable manners" and perversities of her betters: “the servants made the beds and can see who soiled them.” Grace constantly has her finger on the pulse of the “many-tongued gossip” that travels from lady’s maid to concierge to the footmen all around London. As Robert pursues his investigations, keeping his concerns close to his chest, Isobel utilizes Grace's help, fluttering through Belgrave Square making sure the Dilberne's place in society is secure.
Weldon has a gift for presenting this stiffly class-conscious Edwardian world of chilly maidens, fallen women, and rampant men who at all cost have reputations to be
maintained. From a city awash in anarchists and revolutionaries (at least in Isobel’s eyes) to Mayfair's smart new gambling dens and brothels,
from recalcitrant Rosina and her radicalism over the rights of women to Arthur’s perceived “moral peril” to Belgrave's downstairs run by both butler and housekeeper with forty years in service, the reader learns that in turn-of-the-century London, the unexpected
can and will happen.
Wealthy American fortune hunter Tessa O’Brien and her daughter, Minnie, have just arrived from Chicago, sent by Minnie’s father to buy a husband. Once the object of scandal, Minnie wants Arthur’s title while Arthur
is convinced that her settlement will be more than enough to pay off the Dilberne family’s debts. Adding to the flavor is white-bosomed Flora, a prostitute whom Arthur has promised to marry. Arthur cannot bear to lose Flora
though he knows she's perfectly capable of deceiving him with another man: “It was not as if he loved Flora, men didn’t love whores they used them.”
Delivering plenty of drama, the author keeps us basking in Isabel's
precarious circumstances: a feckless husband, an actual bankruptcy, and a wasted
inheritance with the potential to add to her shame and social disgrace. Family
dramas aside, the magic is the bewitching romance between Minnie and Arthur. As Weldon leaves us looking forward to the next chapter, the new Mrs. Dilberne is left chomping at the bit
of her elevated, prized status.