Past Imperfect, By Julian Fellowes
If you miss the rituals of the class system, read on
Sunday 16 November 2008
There has always been a space on the bookshelves of Britain for a novel or two about class, and there have been some great ones in the last century, from P G Wodehouse's Empress of Blandings and Waugh's Brideshead Revisited to Ishiguro's Remains of the Day and Edward St Aubyn's mordant Never Mind.
These novels shine a clear light on to the powerful effects of snobbery and the titanic scale of the class system in England in the last century. They share faultless attention to detail, making each of them a classic, important both as a work of fiction and a reference to a phase of social history that will pass largely unmourned.
There is, however, someone who will forever regret the demise of the class system. Julian Fellowes' novel is testimony to the gilded era of the Season. This bonkbuster sized novel is drenched in bitter sorrow that the world has moved on, and there is almost no one left on earth who cares how an earl's married daughter should be addressed.
Embedded in the detailed descriptions of how the upper classes lived 40 years ago is a slimline plot. Damian Baxter, old, rich and lonely, is dying. Summoning an old enemy (once his closest friend) he concocts a Recherche du Temps Perdu mission among the debs he once slept with to find a child he may have fathered. His final act will be a coup de foudre for the family of this child, but Baxter plans to cushion the blow by leaving his fortune to his only offspring.
There are five ex-debs with children of the right age and the hapless narrator finds them one by one. What he discovers is that their lives now highlight the ways the world has changed, and they all seem to have a soft spot for Baxter. This is gruelling as he nurses a resentment against the man himself, the cause of which is revealed only at the end.
Luckily for him, and surprisingly to the reader, the debs are all very happy to talk openly about their sex lives almost 40 years earlier, and the plot thins and changes shape as we reach the dénouement. Our nameless sleuth's own grudge against Baxter involves his unrequited love for the blue-blooded beauty Serena Gresham – that's Lady Serena Gresham until her marriage – and there is a lot of swooning and languishing over her that is reminiscent of Charles Ryder's obsession with the Flyte family in Brideshead Revisited. Novels begin to cross-pollinate as the book progresses. There are moments from Donna Tartt's The Secret History in a wild dinner scene, and shades of Pride and Prejudice when the narrator finds himself at Lady Serena's ancestral seat for a musical recital.
This is a book for a hot winter beach, an escape from life as we know it. Fellowes does us a huge favour in chronicling the world of class-bound aristocrats and their arcane snobbery. (The narrator is keen to inform Baxter that he has his own white tie and does not need to hire one.) But in revealing their priorities, he gives us much to be grateful for in our own society now.
Past Imperfect will now take its place on the nation's bookshelves, but the order of things must be observed. It belongs a shelf or two down from the Class classics.
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