Review: House of Trelawney

This is a book to read carefully, a satire on wealth that never descends to the comic level, writes Anne Garvey


House of Trelawney by Hannah Rothschild (Bloomsbury, £16.99)

Few authors can be better placed — or at least better named — to tell a tale of wealth. The Rothschild name irresistibly evokes the world of high finance like no other. But this handsome saga of “old money new money and no money at all” spans experience from the high nobility to the brash new cash of contemporary wheeler-dealers right down to the cleaner at the magnificent but decaying Trelawney Castle, whose life savings are salted into Acorn Bank (Chairman Lord Trelawney). 

It is 2008 and, in retrospect, we know, disaster threatens the entire social edifice of western economies. Hannah Rothschild sets out her cast of characters with the confident assuredness of a chess champion about to unfurl a complex mind game. 

Her scope is certainly ambitious. “Since 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,” she writes. 

The vast castle and its thousands of acres of land are the embodiment of their 800-year-long success. The Earl, Enyon, now a frail 85-year-old, in the past has been a reckless womaniser known as “Tres-Horney”,  so many girls did he seduce — and pay off — in his long, stylish life. Now, he and his Countess, Clarissa, live a fantasy existence. Their stressed and oppressed daughter-in-law Jane serves them grey,  cash-and-carry mince dinners every night, left over from suppers made for her children, Arabella and Toby, who moan at the miserable meals they are having to eat. 

Eldest son Ambrose at Harrow costs too much for any other children to go there, so they’re at the local comprehensive. And Kitto, the Viscount, travels up and down to London second class, pocketing the £6,000 First Class allowance as Bank Chairman, to try and keep the vast oil tanks full at home. 

As the book opens, the bill — unpaid — is £88,000 and there is no more hot water. The Viscount has tried to raise money. He “turned 500 prime acres over to growing strawberries at a time when Spain was mass-producing the fruit. His idea to host organic burials had led to a massive and expensive advertising campaign and only three takers. He built and self-funded a housing development but failed to get proper permissions.” And then  there was the sizeable investment in rare-breed animals that turned out to be rare “because no one wanted them”.

Up in the City, miles from the struggles of the castle, Kitto’s sister Blaze, estranged from her family for 20 years,  is now the manager of a multi-billion-pound budget in Kerkyra Capital. On the day a new American chairman, Thomlinson Sleet (a forgotten old friend ) takes control, she boldly resolves to give a presentation warning of the dire situation she foresees. 

“Employees go home each night not knowing if there is enough money to trade the following day,”  she declares. “The whole system is perilously close to collapse… this is dark as 1929”.

And into these two worlds, a desperate letter arrives from an old friend who has married a Maharajah in India, begging for help for herself and her destitute daughter.

Hannah Rothschild is a writer with an eye for detail and the “minor” observations she introduces are far from commonplace. This is a book to read carefully, a satire on wealth that never descends to the comic level. Even though the pretensions and hopes of the characters are often absurd, they are not unbelievable. Indeed. they feel realistic. House of Trelawney is an epic read, a mélange of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, Sebastian Faulks’s One Week in December and Stella Gibbons’s Cold Comfort Farm

Rothschild’s novel is an adventure. She conjures little-known — to most of us — worlds, populated by fascinating characters, not to mention a mysterious love story from the past. For a long, late-winter read, it would hard to find anything more enticing, amusing or so full of incident. Though set in 2008,  it has a more contemporary feel, conveyed by a writer who can recognise real money when she sees it. 

Hannah Rothschild will be discussing ‘House of Trelawney’ with Lucy Silver at Jewish Book Week on March 4. Anne Garvey is a freelance reviewer

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