House of Trelawney by Hannah Rothschild

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Hannah Rothschild’s House of Trelawney is an unexpected and gripping read. Using the crumbling yet charming Trelawney House as a central character and backdrop, complete with eccentric characters and plenty of scandalous gossip, the result is a humorous and modern take on a classic period drama. Set against the tumultuous time of the 2008 crash and proceeding recession, the story takes us through how one, seemingly privileged family, are navigating their waning wealth and popularity, in a society that increasingly wants them to disappear.

Arguably the most important figure within the novel, the fictional Trelawney House provides the perfect setting for Rothschild’s zany characters and flurry of events. It is here that the language really excels itself; while the majority of the book is character- and plot-driven, we are able to take a moment to delve into the many layers of the house, when the novel shifts its focus towards the fading features, the unmanageable upkeep, and the history seeped within its dusty curtains.

The role of the property shifts and changes throughout the book, going from a vital lifeline for the characters – even if largely a burden – to something much less concrete. The family learn that the house isn’t always going to be there to support them, to soothe their anguishes or fuel their rage. Before this transition though, the different sanctuaries that the house provides for the characters is fascinating, and shows the various personalities that Trelawney can embody.

For Jane, the classic, home-maker setting is provided for in a traditional manner. Yet tucked away in the attic is also a chance for her to revive her artistic passion, and let loose her actual personality beyond the role of care-giver. For Tuffy, the house is a reluctant abode, but somewhere that soon becomes a place for her too to settle and delve into her work, accompanied by the inquisitive Arabella.

However, perhaps the most vital character that Trelawney provides for, is the matriarchal Clarissa. The head of the family, she is nestled in the depths of the property, seemingly waiting for the house (and the family) to return to its former glory. She waits, dressed ridiculously and exhibiting her old-fashioned quirks in the way she treats outsiders, traditions, and even food, critiquing the new world around her. For me, this was Rothschild’s most fully imagined and dynamic character. When first presented with her, I assumed we were going to get just one layer – that of the outdated, rude and obnoxious individual, someone who refuses to change with the times and resents her family for doing so. And while that is in many ways true, as the novel progresses, we begin to see a more vulnerable and at times desperate side to her. She is the product of another era, mourning those who have left her behind, and refusing to let go of the house because of all that it embodies for her. A young woman when she was married and began having children, she knows little else of what exactly to ‘do’ with her remaining time, now that entertaining and maintaining an upper-class household is of little importance. Despite her apparent naiveties, she is also incredibly smart, literally playing to the cameras and ramping up her ‘posh-ness’ when she knows it will elevate her status.

Yet, the most poignant and tragic image of Clarissa is when she is greeted the Princess wearing an old, flamboyant dress, that is described as hanging off her small, weak frame. Blaze and the Princess are clearly embarrassed at the old woman’s appearance, quickly persuading her to change into something more appropriate, yet for Clarissa, this outfit captures her lost youth, her distant passions of entertaining, harking back to something that – deep down – she knows she can never recapture.

For many of the characters though, the house holds toxic memories that many would rather leave behind. This much is true for Tony, another fantastic character who injects an air of humour and light-heartedness into the novel. I loved Tony. Every chapter or scene that included him was a joy to read, and I felt he had one of the strongest, most unique voices out of the family members. His charisma easily charms the reader, and we quickly understand why he has become a go-to for family outsiders (such as Blaze and Ayesha) to turn to. Yet he too has a deeper, sadder sad to him. He is described as almost poverty-stricken, and his once-firm grip on the art world is fading. However, his life has been wonderfully full and colourful, there is no doubt, so that when it comes to the decision of his death at the end of the novel, in many ways we rejoice with him. Even over the course of the novel, his influence in the outside world has declined, and this alone is something he cannot bear. We wish him happily away, content with his choices.

Indeed, the ending of the novel is perhaps one of the most satisfying and heart-warming that I have read of any book. Despite the raw grittiness of this dysfunctional family, they have managed to come together once more, for the sake of a new life. The ‘naming ceremony’ is carried out in true dramatic Trelawney fashion, complete with arguments, outbursts, and one (very) confused outsider. While the sense of loss and sadness is carried throughout the previous pages, here we feel a degree of hope. While I don’t usually enjoy novels that leave us with such a wholesome finale (weird, I know), this one felt apt, and like nothing else would suit. Not every end was tied, and not all characters got what they truly deserved, however it felt as though everyone was right where they needed to be. Trelawney House, which had for so many centuries dominated this family’s existence, faded from view. And with that, came a new future.

House of Trelawney is published by Bloomsbury Books and is available here.

Hannah Rothschild

Hannah Rothschild is a writer, filmmaker, philanthropist and company director. Her biography of Pannonica Rothschild, The Baroness, was published in 2012. Her first novel, The Improbability of Love, won the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse prize for best comic novel and was shortlisted for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction. She writes original and adapted screenplays and also for major newspapers and magazines in the US and UK. Her documentary features have been broadcast on major networks and shown at film festivals. A non-executive director of various financial institutions and the former chair of London’s National Gallery, she lives in London with her three children.

Reviewed by Mariah Feria

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