Thursday, November 01, 2007

Snobs by Julian Fellowes

This book is a catalog of the habits, attitudes, and milieu of the British upper classes, so detailed and specific that it might have been written by a cultural anthropologist. It’s clear that the author, Julian Fellowes, is member of this society, for no one who is not could possibly pick up the infinitesimal details of behavior that he provides. The book would make a good field guide to the species; if you wanted to try to “pass” for an aristocrat you could do worse than to read this book carefully.

Fellowes is not a cultural anthropologist, but an actor and screenwriter. He wrote the screenplay for Gosford Park, a movie that I wanted badly to love, but didn’t. His acting is more to my liking. He played Lord Kilwillie, a hysterically funny (and hugely ridiculous) Scottish aristocrat on the BBC drama Monarch of the Glen. On that show, the lord of the manor marries his housekeeper. According to what I learned from reading Snobs that would never ever happen.

Snobs tells the story of Edith Lavery (whose family name was once Levi), a social climber who marries up. Her ascendancy, her downfall, and her eventual rehabilitation are chronicled in clinical detail. While I greatly enjoyed all these tidbits (must stash away all this information for when I get to meet the Queen), it made for kind of a bloodless novel. I never developed any particular affection for any of the characters, despite Fellowes’s continual insistence on how nice everyone really was.

The book is written in first person, narrated by a friend of Edith’s, a character who is both an aristocrat and an actor (sound anything like Fellowes himself?). This character is our tour guide through the land of the upper classes, and his commentary decodes it all for us. Occasionally, however, Fellowes abandons this narrator in favor of a traditional third person omniscient narrator who looks out from Edith’s eyes. The effect is jarring, and I didn’t like it. It’s just plain breaking the rules.

(Book 49, 2007)

3 comments:

heather (errantdreams) said...

it made for kind of a bloodless novel.

Heh... as evidenced by the fact that while the whole thing sounded fascinating, it sounded so 'bloodless' that by the time you mentioned it was a novel I was surprised to find that out. It had sounded more like non-fiction.

Becky said...

Heather, absolutely. That was the problem. It was just so technical.

Eesti said...

Julian Fellowes' likeable narrator, a working actor who was born into the English gentry, is the reader's entertaining tour guide in the world of contemporary British upper classes in this elegant and insightful satire. He follows the misadventures of a directionless middle-class girl who marries a titled aristocrat and then has difficulty lying in the bed she has made. Although I don't share the narrator's affection and sympathy for the narrow, privileged world he describes, he certainly makes it very interesting with his witty and well-crafted prose--and his attitude makes it possible for him to dissect it honestly, with shrewd humor but without taking cheap shots

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