Newest Review: ... 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... more
With nobs on
Snobs: A Novel - Julian Fellows
Member Name: duncantorr
Snobs: A Novel - Julian Fellows
Date: 26/08/11, updated on 28/05/13 (193 review reads)
Advantages: A well-told tale
Disadvantages: But little more than that
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
Summary: An old-fashioned story in a modern setting