An archly amusing first novel that returns to the territory Fellowes staked out in his Oscar-winning screenplay for Gosford Park: class snobbery among England’s aristocrats and arrivistes.
This story of “a latter-day Cinderella” couldn’t be simpler. Egged on by her rapacious mother, estate agent Edith Lavery sets her sights on an available earl, lands him, leaves him for a dishy actor of no great eminence, and then wonders whether she wasn’t better off surrounded by a world that never accepted her as one of its own and a husband considerably slower and stupider than she is. Nor are the characters especially compelling; the nameless narrator, a well-born actor who floats through the tale as a suspiciously useful confidant and omniscient intelligence, is particularly devoid of interest, even when he’s becoming a husband and father. The distinction of the novel is in its practiced eye for class distinctions (e.g., “that fatal, diffident graciousness that marks the successful social climber”) and the long-bred behavior that keeps the aristocracy tethered in place despite the determined assault of numberless parvenus (so that the phrase “‘not quite a gentleman’” becomes “the stock response to original thought”). Edith’s tug-of-war with her quietly iron-willed mother-in-law, Marchioness Uckfield, over the dull but invincibly goodhearted Charles Broughton stands out from the narrator’s tireless commentary, but the commentary itself, as patient and tireless as Trollope’s in recording tiny social slights and oversights, is the real treat here. If you can call it a treat, since Fellowes’s merciless dissection of the snobs he adores, unfolding in a series of brilliantly epigrammatic paragraphs, is in cumulative doses tiresomely repetitious, even boring, in its insights.
A wonderful commonplace book of wit and wisdom on snobs and aspiring snobs—there are no former snobs—disguised as a novel that’s perhaps both too rich and too dry to take in all at a sitting.