Hannah Rothschild contains multitudes. In addition to formerly serving as chairwoman of London’s National Gallery, she’s also an active philanthropist, documentary filmmaker, writer, and Commander of the British Empire. Her first book, 2012’s The Baroness—later adapted by Rothschild into a television film called The Jazz Baroness—explored the life of her fascinating great-aunt Pannonica, who left behind a title and family to move to New York and become a lover, patroness, and muse to the jazz musician Thelonious Monk. Since then, Rothschild has focused her gimlet-eyed observations on sending up the British aristocracy: Whether in her lacerating and award-winning satire of the art world, 2015’s The Improbability of Love, or her more recent comedy of manners House of Trelawney (2020), Rothschild’s gift for portraiture and willingness to turn anything (and anyone) into a joke make her a joy to read. But it isn’t all laughs: The books take place nearly a decade apart, capturing both the 2008 economic crash and the Brexit referendum through the eyes of a single family. In both, Rothschild deftly navigates the private moments, intimate discussions, and tragedy that befall the Trelawneys.
Recently, Vogue spoke to Hannah Rothschild, author of the forthcoming High Time (out July 11 from Knopf), which again reunites the reader with the Trelawneys, about who would play her deplorable, Trump-like villain Thomlinson Sleet; her favorite way to read; and so much more.
Vogue: Tolstoy began Anna Karenina with a now famous dictum about unhappy families. Can you tell us about the Trelawneys and why you’re revisiting them?
Hannah Rothschild: The Trelawneys are a wildly dysfunctional, loveable, eccentric, and impoverished British aristocratic family who are better at spending money than making it. When we first meet them, in House of Trelawney, there are three generations living together in a dilapidated Cornish Castle. I was loath to say goodbye to the wonderful characters and thought that Ayesha, the devastatingly smart, beautiful, and unworldly illegitimate daughter was worthy of a novel in her own right.
I’m sure more than a few readers have wondered if the Trelawneys are based on your own family. Can you confirm or deny?
All writers beg, steal and borrow from their own backstories. Let’s put it this way: My family still has a roof over its head and we are—generally!—on speaking terms.
Both House of Trelawney and High Time are set primarily in Cornwall. What significance does the locale hold for you?
Cornwall’s beauty hits the visitor with a walloping punch. Perhaps it’s because it’s a bit of land falling off the end of England, perhaps it’s the air or the people, but there’s a romantic, unworldly otherness to the county that’s hard to let go.