Friday, January 3, 2014

Snobs by Julian Fellowes

Many of you probably know that Julian Fellowes writes for the beloved English period drama Downton Abbey.  You may even know that he won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay for the film Gosford Park in 2002.  But did you know that he used to be an actor?  And that he's also a novelist?  His 2004 novel simply titled Snobs takes a look into a modern day Downton Abbey-type manor house.  But lest you think this book is all "Upstairs vs. Downstairs," let me assure you that it is not.  It is really about how the class system is very much alive and well in England to this day.  And how the aristocracy treats everyone else.  It is a comedy of manners- or perhaps, a lack-there-of.

Snobs is written mostly from the point of view of an actor who was born an aristocrat, and he tells the tale of Edith Lavery and the Broughtons, who hold the seat as to the Marquess of Uckfield.  Edith, who was brought up in an upper-middle class household by a mother who longed to be debutante, is a very attractive blonde who agrees to go along with her mother's plans for coming out and taking an active roll in London's debutante season.  Nearly nine years later, Edith is working a boring desk job and hasn't landed a rich husband- or any husband at all.  While visiting the friends in Sussex, Edith, our narrator and their host Isabel Easton, decide to take a public tour of the nearby manor house Broughton Hall.  The group run into one of the members of the family while on the tour and Charles Broughton (heir to the Marquess and one of England's most eligible bachelors) takes a shine to Edith.  Months later, the narrator and Edith are both invited to join the Eastons at Ascot in London.  The group run into Charles again and the Earl manages to convince Edith to join him for tea.  The rest, as they say, is history.

Charles eventually proposes to Edith and being the pragmatic individual that she is, Edith accepts.  But life as an Earl's wife is hardly what she imagined it would be.  First, there's Charles mother, Lady Uckfield (known affectionately by the ridiculous nickname "Googie"). Lady Uckfield probably hates Edith with a venomous passion but seeing as manners and decorum dictate that she act as if she love Edith, never shows her true feelings.  Googie knows that Edith is not a true aristocrat and that is the one failing that Edith can never make up no matter how hard she tries.  Edith is, and always will be, an outsider.  Then there's the fact that Charles, while a good, loyal, man is rather...boring.  And though Edith plays her part and immerses herself in running flower shows, working with local charities and enjoying life in a grand house, she finds herself to be very unhappy.

Almost a year into their marriage, the Broughtons decide to let a production company film a period drama on the estate.  Our narrator secures a role in the production and is there to witness Edith finally come off the rails.  Throwing all caution and common sense to the wind, Edith begins an affair with the film's handsome leading man, leaves Charles and sets up shop with her new lover in London.  Our poor narrator is then forced to become a sort of go-between for Edith and the Broughton family.

Snobs is a novel about the less glamorous side of the English elite and can be practically summed up in the following quote:

"The English, of all classes as it happens, are addicted to exclusivity.  Leave three Englishmen in a room and they will invent a rule that prevents a fourth joining them."

A delightful read for any who enjoy English history and culture.