The Trelawney estate in Cornwall is much like the Trelawney family itself: sprawling, ancient and crumbling. Once among the most breathtaking estates in Britain, it has fallen into disrepair as the Trelawney fortune disappears. Ivy and moss grow through the walls of what were once grand ballrooms. Greenhouses around the property lie in collapsed heaps. Most of the formerly extensive art collection has been sold off, leaving shameful empty patches on the castle walls. As author Hannah Rothschild writes, “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.”
As has been the tradition for centuries, Kitto promptly kicks his sister, Blaze, out of the castle when he is named the 24th Earl of Trelawney. The hapless Kitto, who is virtually devoid of employable skills or interests, lives in the castle with his wife, Jane, whose own sizable inheritance has been sunk into the lost cause of maintaining Trelawney.
Blaze, sent packing with little cash and no plan, has remade herself as an uber-successful financial investor in London. Beautiful, ruthless and utterly lonely, Blaze hasn’t spoken to the family in years. But when an unexpected heir turns up, the family is forced to reengage and find a way to save the house of Trelawney.
Rothschild, author of The Improbability of Love and The Baroness: The Search for Nica, the Rebellious Rothschild, is also an accomplished film director and a member of that Rothschild clan (the banking one). Her understanding of the eccentric world of English aristocrats shines throughout this remarkably entertaining novel. Her writing is whimsical yet poignant as she examines how privilege can become a burden, and how an inheritance system so focused on men impacts the women drawn into it. Consider an elderly male relative who marvels at the survival instincts of a young Trelawney woman who is single-mindedly focused on marrying someone wealthy: “He’d never understood women; men were so simple by comparison. Centuries of absolute power had dulled the male brain, whereas women, forced for so long to cajole and manipulate, had evolved into far more complex and capable beings.”
Part comedy of manners, part serious meditation on money and gender roles, House of Trelawney is both deeply thought-provoking and thoroughly fun.