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High Time by Hannah Rothschild: The Forsyte Saga meets Kind Hearts and Coronets

An entertaining dissection of the very British obsessions with money, class and scandal

Hannah Rothschild: House of Trelawney is her second comic novel about a ghastly, rich family
High Time
High Time
Author: Hannah Rothschild
ISBN-13: 978-1526656858
Publisher: Bloomsbury
Guideline Price: £16.99

The funny thing about comic novels is that most of them aren’t funny at all. Hannah Rothschild offered an exception to this rule with her last book, House of Trelawney, a hilarious tale of a multigenerational family, historically ennobled, but now living on the breadline, rather like the chatelaines of British castles forced to throw open the doors to hoi polloi in order to pay for the two-bar electric heater they use to keep themselves warm in what used to be the boot room.

Rothschild has returned to the Trelawneys in High Time, the focus moving to Ayesha, the illegitimate daughter of the much-admired Anastasia, and her husband, Sir Thomlinson Sleet, a multibillionaire known as the Vulgarian, and whose personal motto is “Missing any opportunity to make money is a deadly sin”.

Relations between the couple have reached a low point with Sleet planning on divorcing his trophy wife while Ayesha, learning that marriages performed by sea captains have no legal basis outside The Love Boat, fears that she and her daughter will be left destitute. Naturally, she wants to put some money aside to keep the wolf from the door but she’s also intent on saving Trelawney Castle, the ancestral home whose doors were never opened to her. She just needs to raise £145 million to do so and, in a rather simple but surprisingly credible turn of events, quickly turns her meagre savings into the required fortune.

As with the earlier novel, Rothschild writes with great esprit, hurling jokes on to the page with all the gusto of the Phantom Flan Flinger, and while the reader’s sympathies are directed towards the artistic and devotedly maternal Ayesha, one can’t help but note that she didn’t marry her billionaire husband for his looks or amiability. This is a man, after all, who gets through four or five boxes of pencils a day because, in order to keep his temper at bay and ward off panic attacks, he’s been advised by his doctor to snap as many in half as he can.

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It’s hard not to feel that the novel has been influenced by Succession, with Sir Thomlinson a version of Logan Roy, just without the charm, and his closest assistants, Rodita and Donna, representing the Gerri-Karl-Frank triumvirate, soaking up their master’s abuse like a group of masochistic sponges. However, while the humour in the television show lurks subtly beneath a dark façade, Rothschild’s is all on the surface which, as the novel progresses, can become a little exhausting. It soon becomes hard to care about the fate of a crumbling castle in Cornwall or the anxiety of having a nest egg of less than £50 million, although a fascinating section on art forgery lifts the narrative considerably. However, if you believe there are few things more dreary than the world of cryptocurrency, then you will not be disabused of that notion here.

One gets the sense that Rothschild is working on a series of novels, rather like Elizabeth Jane Howard’s Cazalet Chronicles, centring on different family members each time

The highlight of the novel is Clarissa, the octogenarian matriarch and the sort of woman who would view the Mountbatten-Windsors as a family of boorish bourgeois arrivistes. She gets the best lines and is easily the most outrageous character in a parade of grotesques. Her marriage to an elderly Italian duke who can ‘make love in seven languages’ builds to a hilarious climax and it’s rather a shame that their interplay is cut tragically short.

One gets the sense that Rothschild is working on a series of novels, rather like Elizabeth Jane Howard’s Cazalet Chronicles, centring on different family members each time. What Howard understood, however, is that each novel in a sequence needs to have its own integrity without specific reference to its predecessors. I recall Tuffy, Kitto, Toby and others from the earlier book, but their brief appearances here, trailing literary backstory, might confuse those who have not yet made their acquaintance.

Should The Forsyte Saga and Kind Hearts and Coronets meet on some metaphysical plane of existence and spawn a novel, then High Time might very well be its title. It’s an entertaining dissection of the very British obsessions with money, class and scandal, but the best comic novels — Lucky Jim, Catch-22, and, indeed, Rothschild’s earlier book — recognise that the jokes should serve the plot, not the other way round. High Time is a lot of fun, and it did make me laugh, but when the merriment ends, one does want to be left with more to think about than the lifestyles of the rich and ghastly.

  • John Boyne’s latest novel is All the Broken Places (Penguin).
John Boyne

John Boyne

John Boyne, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a novelist and critic