Belgravia by Julian Fellowes: A Higher Class of Romance
In June, 1815, the Duke of Wellington’s army gathered in Brussels in anticipation of a decisive encounter with Napoleon Bonaparte.On the very eve of battle, Charlotte, Duchess of Richmond, invited the great and the good to a majestic ball which would become the stuff of legend.
For one night only, in the permissive shadow of war, society’s rules were bent and aristocratic hearts were broken. Julian Fellowes, ingeniously, organised an invitation to the ball for the protagonists of his latest novel, Belgravia.
Edmund, Lord Bellasis, is the only son of an Earl and heir to a vast fortune, ‘with all the responsibilities such a position entails.’ He is not the master of his own future and under pressure to make a desirable match but his heart, surprise surprise, has been captured by an entirely unsuitable girl.
Sophia Trenchard is 18 years old, blonde, blue-eyed and, you'll never guess, madly in love with Edmund. Sophia, Fellowes tells us in a line which seems to directly channel Jane Austen, is:
...at that period of her life which almost everyone must pass through, when childhood is done with and a faux maturity, untrammelled by experience, gives a sense that anything is possible until the arrival of real adulthood proves conclusively that it is not.
Sophia’s mother, Anne Trenchard, is uncomfortably aware that her parvenu family has no place parading at the ball, nor in society. Anne’s husband, James Trenchard, a market trader turned intrepid social mountaineer, prefers to believe that his daughter’s connection to Viscount Bellasis is the Trenchards’ ride to the upper echelons.
The night of the Duchess of Richmond’s Ball marks a cataclysmic shift in all their lives, the after-effects of which are still rattling teacups twenty-five years later in the newly-built drawing rooms of Belgravia.
The Right Honourable Julian Alexander Kitchener-Fellowes, Baron Fellowes of West Stafford, Lord of the Manor of Tattershall in Lincolnshire, married to Lady Emma, lady-in-waiting to Princess Michael of Kent, is well-situated to tell tales of the British aristocracy.
Best known as the creator of the TV series Downton Abbey, Fellowes also wrote the Oscar-winning screenplay for Gosford Park (2002) and the screenplay for Young Victoria (2009). His first novel, Snobs (2004,) explored the marriage of a middle-class girl into the aristocracy while Past Imperfect (2009) compared the debutante seasons of 1968 and 2008.
In Belgravia, Fellowes sticks to what he does best and does better than anyone else. Bereft fans of Downton Abbey, which ended a six year run in 2015, will find a cast of familiar characters in Fellowes' third novel, transposed though they may be to the 19th century. An acquisitive servant spies on her petulant mistress, a conniving mother seeks a lucrative pension fund by investing her daughter into an upwardly mobile marriage, an ambitious tradesman covets an upper-class bride and, best of all, an acerbic, elderly Countess puts them all in their rightful place.
Fellowes has a fine understanding of the drivers of human nature. Jealousy, greed, ambition, and the need for approval, whether from a parent or from society, are all powerful forces which the author draws upon to create appealing, if somewhat exaggerated, characters.
The goody-two-shoes, young lovebirds are a tad under-whelming. The flawed and all too human supporting cast, more mature in both years and character, are the real heroes.
As with Downton Abbey, it is the exquisite attention to period detail which makes Belgravia a delightful read. A lady’s hand-painted fan is, of course, by Duvelleroy. Fruit is served on a silver epergne. Characters dwell in a world of unparalleled refinement where gentlemen take luncheon at their exclusive clubs while ladies embrace the Duchess of Bedford’s marvellous innovation known as Afternoon Tea. Fellowes is at home in the lofty reception rooms of Belgravia and it shows.
The plot, while hardly original, is compelling. The big twist comes early and from there the story lurches from one heart-stopping crisis to the next, effectively diverting the eye like a crinkle crankle wall, from a fairly predictable ending. Remarkably, to Fellowes credit, the certainty that everything will turn out alright in the end does nothing to abate the tension.
Fellowes has composed the literary equivalent of rhubarb crumble; his book is unchallenging, comforting, well-made and tart enough to be interesting.
If historical romance is your cup of Afternoon Tea, you won’t find any with more class than Belgravia.