I like Julian Fellowes’ TV series Downton Abbey quite a bit, but unfortunately I bought this book before I realized that relatively little of what I like about the show is about the writing, particularly the plotting. It’s almost uniformly excellently acted, and the production design is gorgeous. Certainly some of my emotional investment in Matthew and Mary’s rocky relationship is thanks to the verbal sparring Fellowes laid out for them, but it’s partly due to how Michele Dockery and Dan Stevens inhabit and solidify Fellowes’ creations.
Snobs is set during John Major’s tenure as Prime Minister, and revolves largely around Broughton, which could be a latter-year Downton Abbey if Downton and the Grantham’s are lucky: like many real-life manor houses, Broughton admits tourists to generate some revenue, but the house and lands are intact. The plot, such as it is, concerns an unfavorable match made by Broughton’s heir, and its eventual consequences.
I found the narrative presence perplexing. It shifts from an unnamed first-person voice, a young man in the disreputable profession of acting, yet with clear evidence of good, if not noble, breeding, to a more-or-less limited omniscient third-person voice with glimpses into the internal life of Edith, the aforesaid unsuitable match. These two narrative voices seem to contradict each other on at least one significant plot point, but they share a several-years-hence vantage point, and a curious positioning with respect to the English upper classes. They claim to not be of them, and are mildly critical of them, but they have clearly studied them at no little length. They’re also both far more critical of the middle classes and the nouveau riche than those with hereditary wealth.
Overall the tone is less satirical than sociological/behavioral, nearly to the point of being like a reference work diluted for the layperson: here’s this strange creature, the titled English person, and here are its peculiar habits. (I had no idea shooting, British style, was so rigidly formalized and complicated, although I shouldn’t have been surprised.) Readers familiar with Lord Grantham’s blather about the obligation of the estate to the community around it will see this sentiment echoed at much greater length. Sometimes that verges on apologia, and sometimes that verges on parody. No one ever says “The poor just don’t appreciate what dashed hard work it is being so damnably rich,” at least, not in so many words. Many words are also devoted to how fundamentally impenetrable the ranks of the rich are to outsiders. I found the specific language often annoyingly repetitive, with the schoolgirlish, breathy, intimate, urgency attributed to Lady Uckfield*’s delivery the most extreme example (and one I’m not even sure I would have parsed correctly if I hadn’t heard Maggie Smith demonstrate it as Downton’s Dowager Countess). But there are plenty of other moments for which I’m rather inclined to fault Fellowe’s editor, viz:
I felt myself becoming caustic. “What makes you think so well of Simon’s prospects?”
“You’re very acid this morning. . .
I didn’t much care for it — I think it would have been much stronger at half its length, but even then I probably would have found its implicit politics a bit repugnant. But I definitely did enjoy the afterword in which Fellowes reveals some of the roman-a-clef components of the novel, including the not-quite-in-either-world aspect he shares with his narrator.
* perhaps it’s sophomoric of me to think of an Igpay Atinlay variant in regards to this surname. Then again, the book features a “Lord Fartley.”