As befits the first novel from the writer of the screenplay for Gosford Park, Julian Fellowes's Snobs is riven with the manners of a class-ridden country-house world. Indeed, sometimes so arcane are its details - such as the remark that "the upper classes only ever address an envelope to the female part of a couple" - that one begins to wonder if they are red herrings laid by Fellowes as traps for the would-be social climber.
The narrator of Snobs is a successful actor with an upper-class provenance of his own. We never know the name of our guide to this archaic existence; but his story is most definitely set in the present. Edith Lavery, a Chelsea girl of late Sloane- Ranger pedigree (with a faint nod to Holly Golightly and Diana), sets her sights on a lord, and duly gets one: Earl Broughton. But along comes the handsome, upwardly-mobile actor Simon, who rescues her from the very world to which she aspired, and which now bores her. She ought to know that the man's a bounder: as a Daily Mail reader, he also has The Independent delivered every day, "but never reads it".
Fellowes's attractive, faintly cynical voice has overtones of Trollope, Waugh and Mitford; a closer comparison would be with the brilliant stories of Noël Coward, which exude a similar obsession with class. But all too often Snobs has the air of a rearguard action, with arch references to the onset of New Labour, uncomfortable descriptions of "some dusky premier of an oil-rich state", and a reliance on the admittedly fascinating, if fetishised rites of an exclusive class.
Broughton's mother, Lady Uckfield, is a woman desperate to engineer her son's marriage and deploys "a watchmaker's eye for detail with a madam's knowledge of the world". So too does Fellowes. This is a world of the General Trading Company, chintzy sofas and damask-hung walls; of Maison Pearson hairbrushes, Hardy Amies fashion shows and Sotheby's summer parties. As we follow our heroine from stately pile to Mediterranean villa and back to the Ritz, we sense her equivocation as her life is mapped out before her in a sequence of shooting parties and charity committees.
Fellowes is almost too good at revealing the mores of these people obsessed with their status, its maintenance, or its loss, and some might read this deft, entertaining novel with a horrified revulsion. Others will be delighted by its insider's view of a particularly British predicament.
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