Snobs by Julian Fellowes

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Snobs by Julian Fellowes

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Sue Magee
Reviewed by Sue Magee
Summary: A well-written satire about the aristocracy and those with ambitions to join their ranks. Characterisation is excellent and it's a romping plot. Buy it as it's a book you could read again, but if not, just read it!
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 352 Date: February 2005
Publisher: Phoenix mass market p/bk
ISBN: 0753820099

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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.

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