Sometimes your pleasure of reading a book is greatly enhanced by the book just before it. Since my previous read didn’t offer much in the way of stylish or witty prose, I positively drank up this delicious, sharply observed novel of modern manners about the insular world of English upper classes and those anxious to gain a membership.
I picked up this book at a second-hand store because the name Julian Fellowes pricked my memory; he of course is the creator of the wildly successful Downton Abbey TV series. He also won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay for Gosford Park in 2002, and a quick Wikipedia search identified him as Baron Fellowes of West Stafford. So it’s fair to say that he’s well qualified to give an insider’s view into the intersecting worlds of aristocrats and actors straddled by the novel’s unnamed narrator, an actor with unspecified upper class origins.
The main story concerns Edith Lavery, a daughter of a successful chartered accountant and his snobbish social-climbing wife. Edith is a classic English blonde beauty with blue eyes, nice manners and perfect complexion, but sadly no discernible talents or qualifications. The only way to propel herself to riches and social success, she concludes, is a marriage. While visiting a country estate as a paying visitor, Edith meets Charles Broughton, the only son and heir to the Marquess of Uckfield and one of the most eligible aristocratic bachelors around. Charles is genuinely smitten and when he proposes, Edith accepts.
Charles’ mother, shrewd Lady Uckfield, is sceptical of Edith’s motives and sincerity of her feelings for her son. True enough, when the luxurious trappings of her new gilded cage lose their lustre, and life in the country with her thoroughly decent but limited husband gets unbearably tedious, Edith is ready to be tempted. Enter Simon Russell, a spectacularly good-looking actor who comes to Broughton to film a period drama.
When I think of English upper class my imagination inevitably tends to go to the 19th century novels and period dramas, and rarely travels past World War II; there is of course the constant presence of the British royal family in the Australian media but you rarely ever think beyond it. So it comes as a bit of a jolt to read about the modern aristocracy circa the year 2000, a tiny handful in a country of 60 million that still seem to follow the same century-old codes. Fellowes dissects these social norms and nuances with a skill of an anthropologist and a great satirical wit, revealing all the ways the upper classes contrive to maintain their impenetrable wall of exclusivity. Such as, for instance, addressing each other with silly childish names like Googie or Tigger, naturally off-bounds to any outsider.
While the somewhat cynical voice of the novel is attractive, so is the generosity – it never loses the sight of its well-drawn characters’ humanity, and they can’t be easily stuck with one-dimensional labels such as ‘shameless social climber’ or ‘dull husband’ or ‘monstrous mother-in-law’. Above all, Fellowes is just an excellent writer; the novel is full of acute and humorous observations and sentences that would make for marvellous stand-alone quotes.
On a couple of occasions, I did get slightly annoyed with the focus on the details of aristocratic lifestyle getting in the way of the story: it’s hard to get excited about the history and description of a country house when you’re itching for the book to cut straight to the juicy drama between the characters. But these are minor complaints for what is essentially a very amusing and fabulously entertaining book.