Book review: The House of Eliott by Jean Marsh

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It’s a case of ‘Mayfair Revisited’ ... if you didn’t catch the iconic 1990s BBC series The House of Eliott featuring two sisters who create their own high-class fashion business, now is your chance to follow some of the action.

Jean Marsh, co-creator with Eileen Atkins of the hit 1920s-based drama, makes a welcome return to the fluctuating fortunes of Beatrice and Evangeline Eliott in this sparkling book based on the series.

The leading characters reappear – Bea’s on-off boyfriend Jack Maddox, pompous cousin Arthur, head seamstress Tilly Allen and Evie’s string of unsuitable amours – but there’s the added twist of a grittier storyline, more fleshed-out characters and a welcome touch of social realism.

Beautiful clothes are still centre stage in Marsh’s finely embroidered reworking but so too are the grinding poverty, the fight for female emancipation and the political turbulence of the Roaring Twenties.

Marsh places more emphasis on the private lives of the ambitious sisters without losing sight of the glamorous but ruthless fashion world which is the power behind their dressmaking business.

Virtually destitute after their doctor father dies leaving massive debts, Beatrice and Evangeline must fight to assert themselves in a society still dominated by men.

At 30, Beatrice is the elder and more dominant but considers herself plain and unmarriageable. She’s prickly, impatient and eager to become independent.

Evangeline is only nineteen and ravishingly beautiful. Her naivety makes her prey to chancers, philanderers and rogues and before long, she also becomes the victim of her own desires.

With no formal education and no income at their disposal, they will have to rely on their natural flair for design and needlework.

In the meantime, Beatrice finds a job as secretary and general dogsbody to society photographer Jack Maddox, but their blossoming relationship is marred by conflict and doubt.

Tempers flare as the volatile sisters struggle to make ends meet and Evie starts to rebel against Bea’s authoritarian manner.

But throughout all their private turmoil, their professional goal remains constant – to establish a fashion house in London to rival any in Paris.

Sit back and enjoy the passionate and fascinating story of Beatrice and Evangeline, join them in their triumphs and disasters and delight in all the scandal and scheming that accompanies the rise and rise of the incomparable House of Eliott.

(Pan, paperback, £7.99)