<em>Illustration: Rocco Fazzari</em>

Illustration: Rocco Fazzari

She has tackled marriage, divorce, love, lust, betrayal, sex, feminism, men's rights, anorexia, fat, happiness and misery, and she co-wrote the pilot for the TV series Upstairs Downstairs, so it seems natural that Fay Weldon's latest saga is a romp through aristocratic life in the 19th century.

''If you liked Downton Abbey, you'll love this,'' a sticker on the cover promises.

Habits of the House is a cracker, albeit an acquired one: Weldon writes differently, as if in a hot-air balloon floating above the action, dropping in the odd caustic comment or two. It's the first of her Love and Inheritance trilogy and, like the best TV series, there's a cliffhanger(ish) ending.

<em>Habits of the House</em> by Fay Weldon. Head of Zeus, $29.99.

Habits of the House by Fay Weldon. Head of Zeus, $29.99.

The time is 6.55am on October 24, 1899, and nervy Jewish financier Eric Baum is standing at the door of the Earl of Dilberne's house in Belgrave Square, London, about to deliver bad news. The servants ignore him - he should have gone to the tradesman's entrance - but finally his lordship lets him in, saying ''urgent news is seldom of permanent interest'' with the polite charm of an old Etonian delivering an insult, but one only his kind will recognise.

And there you have it. Weldon drops her first lob into the mire that distinguishes the upper from lower classes. Below stairs, an army of servants toils for the benefit of their masters, who have nothing better to do than loll around and receive. There's the earl and his wife Countess Isabel, their son, Arthur, and their feminist daughter, Rosina.

Hearing the news that their South African goldmine is sabotaged by the Boers and they are bankrupt, their reaction is, so what? Isabel continues planning a lavish dinner for the Prince of Wales, her husband says he's off to the House of Lords, her son thinks only of Flora, his mistress housed in a salubrious home in Half Moon Street. And Rosina carries on defending the poor and needy.

Enter American heiress Minnie with her vulgar mother, hot-footing around London in search of a title to marry in return for dosh made by her butcher father in Chicago. The plot is familiar and god knows it's been milked enough in films, television and other books before Weldon's.

But only she has the irony and wit to make the narrative a page-turner of the highest order. It's useless to pretend this isn't a couple of months in which everything goes to hell. It does. Whoever heard of the sexual/social mores of any class being examined without a hitch?

When Arthur springs Flora in flagrante with his old Eton fag, who invites him to join in a threesome, his reaction is not shock (in fact, he is tempted). It is fury that the house he rents for Flora is available free to someone else.

When Isabel discovers her husband also enjoyed Flora's talents, the letter she writes to removalists is steamed open by the servants. They are sickened, not at the break-up of their masters, but the appalling thought of cancelling the Prince of Wales's dinner.

That the story relies heavily on whether the countess, to save the family's reputation, will give Eric Baum's wife an invitation to her house (morning tea will do), says a lot about the importance of society in Victorian days.

As a way of punishment for blackmailing the aristocracy by a Jewish money-lender it is particularly cruel (yet satisfying). When bestowed and in a grander way than ever dreamt of, it is as if the gates to heaven have opened, yet also somehow deflating.

Two more books to come. Can't wait.

Habits of the House
Fay Weldon
Head of Zeus, $29.99