Julian Fellowes's first serial novel – 'Belgravia' – isn’t a book with great emotional depth, but what the story lacks in nuance it makes up for in a crackling plot.
In television series "Downton Abbey," the stock-in-trade of Julian Fellowes, the show's creator, was well-bred snobbery. In Belgravia, a serial novel now in hardback and the newest offering by Fellowes, "Downton" fans will find much of the same. The book is rife with schemers, social climbers, and snobs to rival even the Dowager Countess of Grantham.
Yes, "Downton" fans, if you mourned the end of Fellowes’s late-Edwardian TV melodrama, you’ll find the territory of “Belgravia” fairly familiar, in spite of its early Victorian setting. Class conflict is alive and well in the pages of this potboiler, as are meddling servants, well-kept secrets, and every reader’s favorite: star-crossed lovers.
“Belgravia” opens in 1815, at a glittering ball on the eve of the Battle of Waterloo. But before readers can get too comfortable, the next installment jumps ahead 26 years, landing in the exclusive Belgravia district of London, where the historically rich and the nouveau rich cautiously rub elbows. It’s here that the real drama of the story unfolds, as the upwardly-mobile Trenchard family faces the repercussions of a long-held secret that could cause their lives to unravel.
If the Trenchards have everything to lose, the other key players in this story, Lord and Lady Brockenhurst, have everything to gain. No spoilers here – “Belgravia” is crafted to keep you guessing from chapter to chapter – but let’s just say that like "Downton," “Belgravia” deals with the concerns of the rich: heirs, money, propriety, and society.
The novel also explores the upstairs/downstairs effect, although at least in this installment of what is sure to be another Julian Fellowes empire, the servants function more as plot devices than well-developed characters. Still, if you’re longing for a slippery servant of the O’Brien or Thomas variety, “Belgravia” won’t disappoint. And Fellowes provides enough of a sketch of the central downstairs characters so that readers may anticipate their reappearance in a sequel.
What readers might not be so keen to revisit is the somewhat relentless historical detail of this story, which seems to be interwoven with the plot more out of obligation than with an eye to thoughtful storytelling. Part of this is the medium, of course. With "Downton," the viewer was fully immersed in the visual details of the narrative. In “Belgravia,” the touches that help the 1840s come to life are painstakingly – and painfully – spelled out. That I could handle (though I did miss the costuming – my primary reason for tuning into "Downton" each week); the problem was that the heavy-handedness extended to characters’ emotions, which should be felt rather than explained.
No matter. While this isn’t a book with great emotional depth, what the story lacks in nuance it makes up for in a crackling plot, with Fellowes’s characteristic well-choreographed storylines and enough cliffhangers at chapters’ end to keep the story moving along. In fact, “Belgravia” was released not just in hardback, but also serially, for those who wanted to download individual installments, following in the great tradition of Charles Dickens, who set a high bar for nimble plotting.
Fellowes is no Dickens – meaning, his stories offer more in the way of fluff than they do in social commentary. Like "Downton," however, “Belgravia” does dabble in feminism; it’s the women who are the engines in this story, the women who get things done. Perhaps the greatest pleasure of the narrative is watching the chess game play out between Mrs. (Anne) Trenchard and Lady Brockenhurst, as they jockey for the upper hand while their mutual secret unravels. The younger Mrs. (Susan) Trenchard’s actions are more unsavory, but also prove surprisingly, if not somewhat cynically, strategic. The Dowager Countess of Grantham might not approve, though perhaps she’d give a nod to the young woman’s daring.
Or perhaps not. The Dowager is, of course, a snob – as are Fellowes fans after six uneven, but nevertheless delightful, seasons of "Downton." “Belgravia” is certainly the lesser of the two offerings – entertaining enough, but, like its nouveau rich characters, ultimately trying a little too hard.