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Heirs and graces

3 April 2004

12:00 AM

3 April 2004

12:00 AM

Snobs Julian Fellowes

Weidenfeld, pp.265, 12.99

This provocative, titillating and seductive novel is about upper-class affectations and ‘the mystery of unearned greatness’. It focuses on a network of rich, blue-blooded and slightly dim grandees which apparently stretches ‘far beyond national boundaries’. Snobs describes in forensic detail a world where duchesses are ‘taken in’ to dinner and desperate, social-climbing women feel deeply ashamed that they never ‘came out’.

Can such people still exist? Can this fascinating story really be set in modern times, or at least in the late 1990s? A few contemporary references to Volvo estates and Partridge’s upmarket food stores are not enough to convince me.

Events unfold in an immensely imposing and well-capitalised stately home in East Sussex — the family still have substantial ‘London holdings’ — and in other smart, secondary locations. Extraordinarily gripping set pieces take place at Annabel’s White’s, the Royal Enclosure at Ascot — those present apparently ‘pretend they are part of some vanished leisure class’ — and finally in a car, terrifyingly driven by the heroine’s aristocratic sister-in-law, a woman who has not yet mastered the art of talking to someone without facing them.

The heroine, Edith Lavery, is not an aristocrat but by this stage of the story has been married to and parted from the heir to the great house and has acquired ‘the patina of privilege’. She is spoilt, bored and beautiful — observers of the marriage break-up see her as ‘a little nobody who couldn’t handle it’ — but she still commands the reader’s sympathy. As does her nice, bluff, dull, lumpish and ultimately honourable husband.

The three sections of this book are fancifully headed ‘Impetuoso-Fiero’, ‘Forte-Piano’ and ‘Dolente-Ernegico’, but the story is an extremely unponderous one, mainly concerned with Edith’s extra-marital affair with ‘one of those actors who play aristocrats so often on television that they end up by believing in themselves as one’.

Julian Fellowes tells this anachronistic morality tale with such wit, verve, elegance and schadenfreude that it never loses momentum. Indeed, Snobs has enough narrative force to allow the narrator, a posh and pontificating actor of the old school, to depart frequently from the text and deliver little lectures about the vices and virtues of English toffdom and how to behave in its company: ‘The upper class are, as a rule, not amused by upper- middle-class facsimiles of them’, ‘One must never be overawed by any display of wealth, no matter how fabulous’ and ‘I have often been surprised at the fantastic discomfort and deprivation the grand English are prepared to put their friends (and total strangers) through.’

Part of the fun of Gosford Park, for which Fellowes wrote the Oscar-winnning screenplay, was the way it made unpleasant figures interesting and amusing. In Snobs, which could also end up as a Hollywood film, he pulls off the same trick with characters who in some cases are ‘snobbish to a degree verging on insanity’. When the beleaguered heroine finally tells her tough, unflinching mother-in-law that she is ‘a fucking cow with a hide of leather and no heart’ and the old lady answers back equally robustly, both women retain our affection. The deadly seriousness with which the narrator appears to take these issues — there is nothing tongue-in-cheek about his delivery — lends grace to the whole enterprise and renders his observations and witticisms all the more devastating.

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