Book Review: “Snobs” by Julian Fellowes

For those Americans who followed Downton Abbey religiously in its heyday, it was hard to say goodbye to the world as much as to the characters. The Dowager Countess’ snobbish quips (“What is a weekend?”) charmed us in their strangeness, as did the divide between classes. While America has its own complex social strata, it is not as old and therefore not as thrilling to its citizens (or maybe it hits too close to home–you’re more likely to despise Gossip Girl‘s Lily van der Woodsen and her treatment of middle-class New Yorkers than that of Downton‘s Violet Crawley towards English working folk). The divide between the upper crust of society, like that of the Downton Crawleys, and their blood relatives, Isabel and Matthew Crawley, is bizarre to American viewers. They are all highly educated (in fact, Matthew and Isabel possibly more so than Lord Grantham’s family), all reasonably wealthy (the Downton Crawleys actually have a lot of financial burdens and difficulties, while Matthew and Isabel can up and move easily), and Matthew by blood has a legitimate claim to the earldom, which is more than Mary has. The divide between the servants and the family is clearer, as we see distinction between employer and employee, but the servants’ humility and the family’s ability to ignore servants’ presence is truly fascinating to us. While I was the viewer who railed about the classism with as much vim as the socialist chauffeur-turned-son-in-law Branson, I was deeply interested in the culture. If all the above got you as nostalgic as me, then you might want to read Snobs, a novel about British society written by Julian Fellowes, the creator of Downton Abbey.

Snobs was published in 2004, before Fellowes created Downton, and it is from the point-of-view of an unnamed character who was raised upper-middle-class with connections to the upper crust of society, i.e. he went to boarding school with nobility and can chum around with them still because he understands their kind, but is working as an actor. The narrator is very much Julian Fellowes in family background, romantic pursuits, interests, and wit, and though his own story is not central to the plot of Snobs, he is interesting in his own right due to his knowledge of English society. The plot centers around the narrator’s friend, Edith Lavery, a middle class working girl in 1990s London who marries Charles, Earl Broughton, only son and heir of the Marquess of Uckfield, in order to gain wealth and prestige.

Edith is a beautiful girl who is aware that she has no real talents or skills beyond being witty and clever, and her only ambition is to marry well. When she accidentally meets Charles Broughton at a showing of his estate and he falls in love with her, she is sure she has won. The observant narrator is less sure, but he knows Charles is a genuinely good man, if a little boring and not at all clever, and he won’t make Edith unhappy intentionally. Yet Edith’s imagined world of parties with royalty is not much like the actual job of charity fairs, county government, land upkeep, and dinner parties with dull people she ends up with as Charles’ bride. The narrator is pulled in all directions as Edith, Charles, and Lady Uckfield (Charles’ mom) want his input and his help. When Edith begins an affair with the narrator’s handsome and charismatic costar in a new film, the worlds and perceptions of nobility and acting clash.

Reading Fellowes’ novel, I could see Lady Mary’s caustic humor in Catherine Chase née Broughton and the Dowager Countess’ dignified and unselfconscious snobbishness in Lady Uckfield. The dialogue and narration are witty and believable, in fact, more believable than Downton‘s increasingly common dips into cheesy moments. There’s a touch of Edith Wharton in the plotting and stakes at hand, and I was often reminded of P.G. Wodehouse in the unrelenting commentary on British people in general and especially within the upper class. Both Wharton and Wodehouse knew the society of which they wrote, so they were able to be brutally honest while still compassionate in their portrayals. Fellowes manages the same, and a reader of Snobs is as sympathetic towards Edith’s status-hungry mother as they are to Charles’ stubbornly status-focused mother, while being critical of their obsession with the intangible. Though narration-heavy, the novel feels like a long gossip story related by a friend and doesn’t lag at all.

It’s main flaw might be that I was convinced the narrator was gay the entire book until he got together with a woman (not a spoiler because his personal life is not the point). That may be my own assumptions about men who notice details of women’s clothing choices and who form close friendships almost exclusively with women and maintain surface friendships with men. Yet it was hard to believe that no one ever thought the narrator and Edith had anything going on, with their constant lunches that Edith’s husband and boyfriend are never jealous of and the narrator’s wife never questions. But again, if the narrator is based on Fellowes, who is apparently heterosexual, this might be the reality of his own life. It was just hard to swallow without any explanation or even a little jealousy on someone’s part.

Overall, the greatest part of the novel is its representation of British society. It may shed a little light for American readers on the complexities of the royal family as well, and got me thinking about the fascinating New Yorker article I read this week about Prince Charles. Nobility still holds some charm that even Hollywood stars don’t have for us common folk. There is a sense in us that who Brad Pitt or Meryl Streep started out as would not be innately different from the lot of us. We all know beautiful and talented people in real life. We may all also know someone who acts. But how many of us know someone born into an old titled and landed family? One that is listed in books of peers? Fellowes knows that world, but he also is far enough on the edges of it to be able to observe it fully. The observation he brings from the inside is thoughtful, amusing, critical, and affectionate. Perhaps the whole structure of class like that is fading, but it exists as a reality and it has a history that holds it up somewhat. Pick up Snobs and have a visit in that world.

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