Sunday, March 11, 2012

For the Anglophile in you

Everyone's been talking about the TV series 'Downton Abbey'. I know that it's inevitable that I'll watch it as I absolutely loved Gosford Park, also written by Julian Fellowes, which earned him an Oscar. Fellowes also wrote 2 novels -- Snobs and Past Imperfect -- both of which were bestsellers in the UK. To read Past Imperfect, with its title's grammatical allusions, was a no-brainer.

Instead of England at the turn of the century, Past Imperfect transports us to England in the 1960s, a time when the excesses of the English aristocracy was still evident. Fellowes transports us to a time and place with its lush debutante balls, decadent parties that last till the wee hours of the morning, and elegant luncheons and dinners to name a few.

The nameless narrator of the novel receives a letter from his sworn enemy, one Damian Baxter, asking for his help. Baxter is terminally ill and informs our narrator that he might have fathered a child during a Season in the 1960s. The narrator agrees to look for Baxter's supposed heir. Thus, the novel switches between present-day England to a Season in the late 1960s, when young women were 'presented to society' and young men 'come of age'.

In Baxter's character, Fellowes shows us what it would be like for an outsider to find himself in a sometimes pleasant and often hostile society. Baxter is the ultimate fish-out-of-water in the novel, for he really is an outsider, but one who's determined to belong. It doesn't end well for Baxter; we get to know that he turns his back to this unforgiving lot with their refined tastes and their snooty ways.

Here is where Past Imperfect becomes a very unconventional page-turner. What did happen to Baxter during that Season? How come he was able to sleep with so many women despite his being common? And from a list that includes a handful of women who had a child during the 1960s, who could have fathered his child? Our nameless character does indeed come through with his task, although the answers to these questions might prove a surprise for the reader.

It's all so very fascinating, I tell you. Fellowes's storytelling abilities, as evidenced by his role as writer of Gosford Park and 'Downton Abbey', are as beguiling to experience as ever. And you got to hand it to the English; they sure know how to express themselves.
'You look here, you pompous, ridiculous, boring, idiotic, unfunny, pretentious, ludicrous joke.' [page 474]
That's a sentence with 7 adjectives, mind you. And only the English can naturally pull it off. Or how about this one:
'He doesn't love you. He loves what you are, he loves what he can boast about, your name, your money'. . . 'You should hear what he says about you, all of you, when we're alone. He's just a regular little toady, a Johnny-on-the-make, creeping and crawling like a bumboy round you, to worm and lick and slide his way into your lives.' [page 478]
Past Imperfect is such an entertaining read and works on so many levels that the reader might not feel its apparent heft (it's close to 500 pages). It's a showcase of a time when the English aristocracy still clung to their ways. It's a meditation on what we can make of ourselves despite our birth origins, whether royal, aristocratic, or common. It's also a very funny and oftentimes touching novel about a man, his enemy, the past when these two young men moved in the same circles, and the present when these same characters somehow redeem themselves.

Read this book if:
  1. You're an Anglophile.
  2. You're just not satisfied anymore with OK! magazine.
  3. You love the 1960s.


Jack said...

Greetings, my friend. All I can address here is Downton Abbey. A little out of my line, but my girls, Bonnie and Nine have been loving it! If you have a preference that leans in that direction, apparently this production is a masterpiece. Enjoy!

Peter S. said...

I love 'Downton Abbey'! I haven't been watching a lot of TV lately, but I've been addicted to this series since I saw the pilot!

Stepford Mum said...

I am such an Anglophile, as you know! But I suppose that's only natural, having spent five years there. I do want to read this. Now I'm kicking myself, because I think I may have seen that book lounging on the sale shelves at Fully Booked, but I didn't pick it up :(

Peter S. said...

Hi, Stepford Mum! Really? This was on sale?! I bought it at full price! Anyway, I'm looking for his earlier novel -- Snobs. Judging by the reviews, I think it's just as good as Past Imperfect.