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Snobs: A Novel - Julian Fellows

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Genre: Politics / Society / Philosophy

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      26.08.2011 12:15
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      An old-fashioned story in a modern setting

      Julian Fellowes would not, I fancy, mind my calling him old-fashioned. Indeed, he might take it as a compliment. Strangely enough, I might even mean it as a compliment, since as a novelist he is old-fashioned in a way that is hard not to admire, or at least respect. His writing is well-crafted, his prose exact, sometimes elegant and sometimes witty. He has an ear for dialogue, and knows how to use it to drive a plot forward. Moreover, he understands his market, and if his novels are somewhat predictable in their subject-matter and style, they are probably exactly what many of his readers want. He gives value for money.

      He is also old-fashioned in ways which I for one find harder to respect, let alone admire. He is obsessively fascinated by what he rather ponderously describes as the British "upper and upper middle classes", their customs forming the mainspring of his plots. Some critics claim to have detected strands of satire in his work, but I believe this to be wishful thinking on their part. His perception of his characters' weaknesses is sharp enough, but its edge is blunted by his underlying sympathy for them, his identification with their attitudes. To the extent that he pokes fun at them, he does so as an affectionate insider, and it is exactly that - poking fun - rather than criticising, let alone excoriating. He is, I rather think, as much a snob as any of them. But he can tell a story.


      * The story *

      Edith Lavery is the pretty, personable daughter of middle-class parents - a dull accountant and his socially pushy wife. At the outset of the tale, she is marking time beautifying the front office of a Chelsea estate agency while waiting for life to offer her something more exciting. And so it does, or at least seems to for a while; a sequence of coincidences brings her into contact with Charles Broughton, heir to the Marquess of Uckfield. Charles, a decent and determined if unimaginative man, duly falls in love with her and overcomes both her initial reticence and the stick-in-the-mud scepticism of his parents in order to marry her. She does not love him, but he is titled and rich; surely being his consort and lady of the manor to a substantial slice of Sussex will be an improvement in her lot.

      In the event, needless to say, life among the aristocracy does not fulfil her expectations. Boredom sets in quickly, and a tempting escape from it soon beckons in the person of Simon Russell, a glamorous, glib but essentially shallow would-be film star. Is she prepared to risk a public scandal and endure the resultant social ostracism to be with him, or will Charles prove steadfast enough to rise to the occasion and rescue her from a morass of her own making? With friends and relatives, some well-meaning and others anything but, pulling the protagonists in differing directions, the outcome is in doubt until the end.


      * Narrative technique and style *

      The tale is told in the first person by an anonymous narrator, a socially well-connected actor, clearly modelled on the author himself. This narrator plays little active part in the plot beyond introducing the main characters to each other and occasionally acting as a kind of go-between among them, but his is a conveniently ubiquitous presence, in a privileged position to pass comment on the events as they unfold. He is also, of course, in a privileged position to pass comment on the principals, and the characterisation is on the whole deftly handled. If some of characters come across as social stereotypes, well, maybe their real-life equivalents would regard as beneath them any concern as to whether or not they were behaving stereotypically.

      Fellowes evidently likes the technique of employing a semi-detached narrator, since it is also used in his other published novel, Past Imperfect, and it does work well in his hands. In other respects, his technique in Snobs is very conventional: the action is described in strict chronological sequence, with a clear beginning, middle and end. This chimes well with his traditional, almost classical, written style. While his neatly-turned prose carries the story forward it is flexible enough to support some studied aperçus without jarring, for example: "Lust, that state commonly known as 'being in love' is a kind of madness. It is a distortion of reality so remarkable that it should, by rights, enable most of us to understand the other forms of lunacy with the sympathy of fellow-sufferers" or "Modern psychology constantly harps on the dangers of suppressing one's true sexual nature. It seems to me that it is quite as dangerous to give one's sexual nature free rein and suppress one's worldly aims." It is the mode of expression, as much as the substance, of such observations that lifts the book above its otherwise run-of-the-mill and inconsequential plot. Inconsequential? Well, I suppose there is a kind of underlying moral, along the lines of 'be careful what you wish for, in case it's what you get', but it is neither original enough to arouse the imagination nor poignant enough to stir the spirit.

      The other test of a novel is, of course, its ability to engage the reader. Does the author make you care about the outcome? In the case of Snobs, my own answer would be: 'yes, but only up to a point'. Mainly because I was enjoying the writing, I cared sufficiently to read on to discover how the situation would resolve itself, without really caring about the fate of any of the characters.


      * The author *

      Julian Fellowes has pursued an unusual and interesting career. A Cambridge graduate, he began as an actor and only later branched out into writing. His big step into the limelight came with his script for Gosford Park, which won him the Oscar for Best Screenplay in 2001. He is also responsible for the successful television series Downton Abbey. As yet, he has published only two novels, those mentioned above. He has also written speeches for leading Conservative politicians, notably former leader Iain Duncan Smith, and this may have been influential in bringing about his elevation to the peerage earlier this year; he now sits on the government benches in the House of Lords. In all his fictional writing, his intimate acquaintance with the aristocratic milieu is his stock-in-trade, if it's permissible to use so vulgar a word as 'trade' in this context.


      * Class act? *

      Class is, for better or worse, a perennial theme in British literature, with perspectives offered from both ends of the social spectrum and points in between, but it's been a long time since a British novelist was so unapologetically enthralled by the upper crust as is Fellowes. Nevertheless, he is in a tradition that can be traced back through Anthony Powell and Nancy Mitford to Evelyn Waugh and beyond. Maybe his work is symbolic of the times, in which the social barriers that seemed to be dissolving from the 1960s onwards are gradually being rebuilt, in parallel with the renewed growth of economic inequality. Maybe class is making a comeback. Or maybe not, and Fellowes is just a maverick outlier, a relic of a former era, or error if you prefer.

      Personally, I rather hope the latter, since snobbery of his stamp can be extremely irritating to those who do not share it, almost as irritating as the underlying assumption that everyone, whether or not they admit it, is in awe of the aristocracy. I suppose that the vanity of this assumption is sustained by their being constantly brought into contact with those of whom it is true. Naturally so, for those of whom it is not true steer well clear of them. However, one doesn't need to take this to the extreme of steering well clear of books about them, if the books have something to offer over and above their snobbery, which this one does.


      * Commonplace stuff *

      Snobs is published in the UK under the Phoenix imprint of the Orion Publishing Group. Cover price for the hardback is £12.99, for the paperback (345pp) £7.99. If you're interested in the paperback, note that for the same price you can have an omnibus edition with Past Imperfect also included, which obviously represents better value. All can probably be found more cheaply online, and there are also eBook and audio versions available.


      * Recommendation *

      How much you'd like Snobs probably depends on how readily you can stomach its obsession with class. Personally, I'll forgive a good writer almost anything and Fellowes is a good writer. In Snobs he tells a readable and entertaining story. On that basis it's hard not to recommend it.


      © Also published under the name torr on Ciao UK, 2011

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        31.03.2009 18:11
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        Nice book on the class system

        Snobs is a light hearted comdy all about class and social niceties and tells the story of Edith Lavery a young middle class woman who marries into a wealthy famil with a long history. Her husband is heir to the title of the Marquess of Uckfield and as far as Edith is concerned the marriage is one driven by a desire for a position bin society rather than being born out of a love for the heir Charles. This opinion is driven by her mother who has a desire to better herself.

        This is a delightful litle story which focuses on the class system and reminds me somewhat of the Oscar Wilde play The Immportance of Being Ernest mainly becuse both share a central character of a dominating woman with the ability to deliver a sharp, barbed comment. In this book it is Lady Uckfield, Charles mother who is the owner of the sharp tongue.

        The story is told through the eyes of an outsider to the family, an actor who hvers on the edges of society and as such gives a perculiar angle to the whole story.

        This is an easy read with some very amusing passages and certainly it did a good job of holding my attention as it is somewhat different to the sort of reading material I usually opt for. If you are looking for something a little different then give this a try as you may just enjoy it.

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          28.07.2006 20:30
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          A great book.

          Snobs by Julian Fellowes is a delight. I bought it because it came with good recommendation and it was justified, because the story takes you into the world of the aristocracy, and you seem to get a “fly on the wall” image of who they are very accurately indeed. In fact the character portrayals within the 352 pages of this book delight the reader as the pictures painted with words really are fascinating.

          The story revolves around the life of Edith Lavery, an attractive lady whose mother has ambitions for her daughter. Those ambitions rub off on Edith, who, finding herself working in a mundane job in an estate agents office, finds the idea of hobnobbing rather a delight, when she captures the heart of one of the most eligible bachelors around. Charles, an upper crust Earl is charmed by her, and their courtship leads to marriage. The book isn’t really just about the love affair, but the whole ridiculous circus that is part of being “upper crust”. Not only does Edith have ambition, but little by little believes the press image of herself, and I would imagine that it would be very hard not to be pulled into the whole media thing.

          I loved the characters in this book, especially that of Lady Uckfield, who is portrayed as the kind of stalwart lady that makes Britishness a kind of gift, though her art is well practiced, and certainly her upbringing would have a lot to do with the image she creates within the story. A strong lady with the ability to triumph in any circumstances, without showing her feelings, and certainly the image I have always felt of the upper crust.

          The character that narrates the story is an actor with a good solid background and education, although he remains anonymous throughout the book, and here, I didn’t much like the character portrayed, since he displayed himself as always fair, always the friend, and never the rogue, and in real life, would doubt the authenticity of a character with no flaws. A close friend of Edith throughout the story, he comes over as someone accepted in most circles, whilst telling the story of those who perhaps are not as easily accepted by the aristocracy that they try so hard to impress.

          There were some delightful dinner party pieces in the book that had me laughing, and I could actually imagine the portrayals as being true to life. For example, the way in which those that want to be accepted into those circles that are fussy about who becomes part of them try so hard to impress but because of their very lack of class, fail miserably, by over generosity. You cannot buy the kind of class that makes you an acceptable person to the aristocracy. It’s almost like a club and either you are in it, or not. Those trying to become members are indeed the snobs of society, trying to be something that clearly they are not.

          It’s a fun book and something that I enjoyed tremendously. Edith’s ambitions sometimes hamper the direction in which her life is taking her, though I won’t give any spoilers here. Suffice to say that you are convinced by the story, and the characters within the pages are very well described and very believable. What I did like was the way in which comparisons were made between the glory of show business, and the glories of being one of the elite in society, and when put on a simple comparison level such as this, it was actually amusing to think of temporarily popular people thinking themselves akin to the upper classes, though in fact so far away from ever being part and parcel of what makes them what they are.

          Having never heard of this writer before, I had to admit to there being a similarity in his writing to that of Oscar Wilde, in that the satirical part of the book entertains, makes comparisons, and actually makes sense of perhaps aspects of a society I know very little about, and that makes it stand its’ ground as believable and entertaining.

          Charles comes over as probably the most decent of the characters in the book. Misunderstood, and perhaps under-estimated throughout the book, I warmed to the character of the Earl, and his genuine feelings and need to please.

          The book is available from Amazon, and I believe would appeal to those who love all things British, and would enjoy, for a moment in time, being that fly on the wall of British aristocracy. I thoroughly enjoyed it and thoroughly recommend it as a “must have”, that will be taken down from the shelf and read, at a future date, with the same enthusiasm with which I read it this time.

          Paperback: 352 pages
          Publisher: Phoenix Press; New Ed edition (February 28, 2005)
          ISBN: 0753820099
          Available from 6.99 GBP New or a penny from Amazon second hand section, although I like a crisp new book, and this one is worth it new.

          Rachel

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            05.04.2006 12:32
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            Great piece of fiction writing from a new author

            This is yet another book that I chose to read following a review on this site and it was certainly worth the recommendation that it received from the writer SueMagee and it proved excellent reading material for my recent flight and diving holiday as the subject matter is light hearted, amusing and extremely well written.

            The book tells the story of a young middle class woman Edith Lavery who marries into a wealthy aristocratic family in the form of the eldest son Charles Earl Broughton who is the heir to the Marquess of Uckfield. It is fair to say that from Edith point of view the match is not one born of any great love or passion for Charles rather a desire for the lifestyle that the marriage will bring. It is not that she is a gold digger rather through the designs of her upwardly mobile mother it is a position in society that she would like to hold, indeed it is the fantasy of the position rather than the actual reality that holds the attraction.

            The story follows the initial courtship of the two and then the first couple of years of the marriage as Edith encounters Charles formidable mother Lady Uckfield and a host of other upper class people who delight in playing the name game, a game that Edith cannot possibly compete in due to her background.

            Part of the way through this book I started to have an uneasy feeling that something was missing. The story is told predominantly through the eyes of a third party, a mildly successful actor who is responsible in a small way for introducing Charles and Edith. There are occasional switches to provide the viewpoint of Edith and Charles but on the whole it is the actors’ viewpoint that it is told and it was about two thirds of the way through before I realized that you never actually get to know his name. I assume this was done deliberately and upon reading the brief biography of the author on the inside cover of the book his own life seems to reflect that of the actor in the book given that he is Cambridge educated and quite possibly from an upper class background with a career in acting behind him.

            Also it is hard to read this book without a reference to the “Importance of Being Earnest” to which is has a more than passing resemblance particularly as the two share a dominating matriarchal figure who is dedicated to maintaining the roper order of things. Whilst in my view Snobs is not as funny as Oscar Wilde’s contribution it is still very funny in parts and certainly had me chuckling away on a number of occasions. The characters are wonderfully described as are the numerous sub plots that run through every social interaction in the book.

            For those who like the humour of Yes Minister mixed with the cringe worthy social climbing of Keeping up Appearances then you will enjoy this book as it is a sedate read with some great character portrayal and a storyline that is very believable.

            With the British obsession on class, in my opinion it would be wrong to see this book as an outright criticism of the upper classes rather it is more a sad commentary on those in the middle classes who seek to climb the social ladder in the vain hope that they will be accepted into the upper class society even if it means entering into a marriage not based upon love. In fact Edith is more readily accepted by Charles family than she might have anticipated instead it those who herald from the middle class that are her biggest enemies.

            This is certainly a book that I will read again after a suitable period as it was very enjoyable and it is quite likely that I have missed some of the more subtle jokes and innuendo in a first reading. All of the characters are well developed and often entertaining however it is Lady Uckfield that tends to steal the show and in particular in her ability to deliver a rebuke whilst making it sound like a compliment.

            This book is published by Phoenix Fiction with an rrp of £6.99 however it is currently availably on Amazon for £5.59 new or a penny in the used section.

            Isbn 0-75382-009-9

            Thanks for reading and rating my review.

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              20.11.2005 17:32
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              Brilliant, well-written satire.

              Edith Lavery is middle class, the only child of an accountant and a mother with social ambitions. She works in an estate agency and is bored by it. Almost by accident she bags one of the country’s most eligible bachelors, Charles, Earl Broughton, heir to the Marquess of Uckfield. He’s not especially bright, but is a decent, loyal man. Edith doesn’t love him but the opportunity is really too good to pass and they marry. How will Edith cope with her elevation to the aristocracy? More importantly, how will she cope when she realises that she’s exchanged one form of boredom for another?

              Julian Fellowes will probably be a name that’s familiar to you from other forms of entertainment. He’s Lord Kilwillie in “Monarch of the Glen” and was in “Shadowlands” and “Tomorrow Never Dies”. His first screenplay was “Gosford Park” for which he won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. “Snobs” is his first novel, but he’s having a children’s story published next year. Mr Fellowes is a very talented man.

              I borrowed this book from my daughter’s bookshelves on a recent visit. I wasn’t entirely certain that I was going to like it as actors and the aristocracy are not the people in whom I’m most interested but I was short of the read for the journey home. I was entranced and it was very easy reading

              The story is narrated by an actor who has long been a friend of Edith’s. Throughout the novel he remains nameless, which has the curious effect of making him less intrusive than he might otherwise have been. He’s invited to the dinner party at which Edith’s engagement to Charles is announced, as Edith feels the need to have some of her supporters there. A friendship develops between himself and Edith’s fiancé’s family, because he knows some of the people they know. Aristocrats rarely make much social contact with people outside their own class as most gatherings are restricted to people they have always known or whom their friends have known.

              The aristocratic families come across as a curious mixture of the childlike and the pragmatic. Lady Uckfield is still known as Googie to her friends. Her husband is Tigger. The pet names collected in the nursery stick with them all their lives, but it would be a mistake to judge them by this as Lady Uckfield is indomitable and prepared to do all that is necessary for the well-being of her family.

              There are, of course, those who want to be a part of the aristocratic society, either by marriage or by association. Edith’s mother dreamt of swapping the names of dressmakers with Lady Uckfield, or that they would have a light lunch together before visiting their milliner. It would not have been quite so poignant had she not thought the details through quite so carefully as imagine that the lunch would be a light one. A couple who live near the Uckfields dream of joining their social circle and finally manage to invite them out for a meal. They take them to a county house hotel, failing to realise that the aristocracy don’t eat in such places.

              The picture of upper class society and social climbers is malicious and I did feel slightly guilty to be deriving so much pleasure from watching people make fools of themselves. It is, you see, a very good story. I began by thinking it was all rather commonplace, but then longed to know the outcome. I was sorry to reach the end although, curiously I had no wish to know any more of what happened to Edith and Charles. Most stories have a low point where the pages don’t turn quite so quickly, but this moves along at a fast, even pace.

              This is satire but it doesn’t descend into pastiche. The characters are all fully rounded. Initially I thought I would dislike Charles Broughton, the rather dim, upper-class twit, but I gradually warmed to him. He’s not bright but he has a sense of loyalty and decency that makes you want the best for him. Edith marries for position and the mess she gets into is all of her own making but I still found myself wanting it all to work out. The star of the book for me, though, was Lady Uckfield. She fights like a tiger on behalf of her son, but is ultimately pragmatic about the outcome.

              There’s great attention to detail in the book. It’s not just a story about the aristocracy; it’s a study about the way they live, their beliefs and their foibles. It’s waspish, but not done without affection. It’s malicious in places, but never cruel. There are limited descriptions of sexual activity but nothing gratuitous or to make most people blush.

              It’s difficult to think of a modern-day equivalent to this book. Going back a good way there’s the attention to detail and observation that you found in Anthony Trollope’s novels. More than once I thought of Nancy Mitford and Noël Coward. Mr Fellowes is in very good company.

              Highly recommended.

              Quick facts:

              • Paperback 352 pages (February 28, 2005)
              • Publisher: Phoenix mass market paperback
              • ISBN: 0753820099
              • Price: £6.99 but available on Amazon at £5.59 in November 2005

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                25.10.2005 23:56
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                A witty look at the life of the British upper class, and those who want to mix with them

                The author tells us the story of the fictional Edith Lavery through her friend, an actor, who comfortably mixes with the upper classes, and those from the middle classes who would like to be acquainted with them. Every significant character's name is mentioned in the book, except one, but this actor's name, is never revealed. I think that the author has based this character on himself. His background is the reason for this guess.

                Julian Fellowes, now known as an actor, writer, director and producer, followed his public school education and degree at Cambridge, by going to drama school. My research reveals that one of the things he remembers from his drama school days is this, "I would be doing rep, sleeping in digs with leaking walls, then I would go off to a huge stately (home) and have them do my laundry at the weekend."

                Among his ancestors are Sir James Fellows, Physician to the Forces, during George III's reign and Sir Thomas Fellowes, who was a rear Admiral serving with Lord Nelson.

                His wife was born Emma Kitchener, the great-great niece of (General) Lord Kitchener, the First World War minister. She is now lady-in-waiting to Princess Michael of Kent.

                Julian Fellows' success in the entertainment world includes a best original screenplay Oscar for Gosford Park, and as an actor he has appeared in the BBC's Monarch of the Glen and was a government minister in the Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies.

                When I started reading Snobs I wasn't sure if my working class background, and perhaps any unconscious prejudices that go with it, would let me enjoy it, but the writer soon dispelled any doubts about that. (I have recently learnt that according to the academic rules of sociology I have yo-yoed so many times between working and lower middle class in my life, I would have felt dizzy had I realised it!) Perhaps the fact that I don't consciously judge anyone by his or her class, made this read even funnier to me.

                By the time I had finished this comedy of modern upper and middle class manners, I felt like I had meet all of the main characters in it, and knew some very well.

                I felt a lot of sympathy for Earl Charles Broughton, heir to the Marquess of Uckfield. How difficult it is for this financially and socially eligible bachelor to find a suitable wife, when there are money grabbing, socially ambitious middle class woman who would marry him, and put up with the fact that he is boring and not very clever.

                When he meets Edith Lavery at Royal Ascot, I wondered if his life would change forever, or just temporarily. Her Jewish great grandfather escaped to England from Russia in 1905. The family changed their name, inspired by the Edwardian painter Sir John Lavery, to give the illusion that they were linked to the English higher classes.

                To Edith and her middle class parents London is home. Although Charles' family have London accommodation for convenience, home to them is never there. Instead home is the family country residence at Broughton in Sussex. It is rare to find any aristocrat who will admit to preferring to be in town to the country, the author tells us.

                In contrast to her son, I had to admire his mother the indomitable Lady Uckfield, known as Googie to those close to her, because of her intelligence and self-discipline. She brings what she considers to be suitable breeding stock to the attention of her offspring. Despite this, her daughter has already married below her class.

                I don't want to give any more of the plot away as there really isn't too much to it. It is the interaction between the wonderfully witty characters that made this an enjoyable read for me.

                I wonder, if it wasn't for my mild Cockney accent, if the lessons I learnt it this book would allow me to successfully pass myself as upper class for a short while. I don't think so, because the hypocrisy involved, according to the author, would make me giggle, and give the game away. For instance, the book taught me that to register that riches on any scale are not routine is, apparently, vulgar.

                I recommend this super satire to readers of all classes!



                The version I have read is detailed below. It also comes in hardback and audio book.

                Paperback: 352 pages (February 28, 2005)
                Publisher: Phoenix mass market p/bk
                ISBN: 0753820099

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