House of Trelawney: A novel

House of Trelawney: A novel

by Hannah Rothschild
House of Trelawney: A novel

House of Trelawney: A novel

by Hannah Rothschild


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From the author of The Improbability of Love: a dazzling novel both satirical and moving, about an eccentric, dysfunctional family of English aristocrats, and their crumbling stately home that reminds us how the lives and hopes of women can still 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 the 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 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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780525654919
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 02/11/2020
Pages: 384
Product dimensions: 9.30(w) x 6.20(h) x 1.60(d)

About the Author

HANNAH ROTHSCHILD is the author of The Improbability of Love and The Baroness: The Search for Nica, the Rebellious Rothschild. She is also a company director and a filmmaker who has made documentary features and series for the BBC and HBO. She writes for The Times, The New York Times, Vogue, Bazaar, and Vanity Fair. She is a vice president of the Hay Literary Festival, a former trustee of the Tate Gallery, and in 2015 became the first woman to chair the trustees of the National Gallery. In 2018, she was made a CBE for services to the arts and to philanthropy. She lives in London with her three daughters.

Read an Excerpt


Trelawney Castle

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.

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