Ever heard that story about that one family who saw themselves rudely robbed of their joy and hopes for the continuation of their noble line after a single accident that made global headlines? The kind of story that would be related to you through the eyes of the family and their staff? And that you witness the arrival of a couple of social ‘upstarts’, who suddenly grant themselves access to higher echelons? No, I’m not talking about Downton Abbey! This is Belgravia; which just coincidentally happens to also be the work of Julian Fellows…
Well, it’s an honest mistake, really; if you just happen to mistake the Battle Of Waterloo for the sinking of the Titanic, the Trenchards for the Crawleys; and if you wouldn’t happen to have your goggles on, you’d swear those two downstairs were good ol’ Carson and Mrs. Hughes. Nothing to see here. Carry on.
Alright, there are more similarities between the popular series and Belgravia than there are footmen at a banquet – a proper one, mind you. And yet, Fellows knows how to grab our attention again; this time with an intricate family secret and a fascinatingly executed plot-twist I certainly had not expected. Familiar faces and settings be damned; this is a class act that keeps you reading.
Belgravia was conceived as a serialized novel, with readers being able to access every new chapter online on Julian Fellowes website, allowing them to experience the story in a more interactive fashion. Which is nice, because the idea ties right back into the original way Charles Dickens’ novel where first published as serialized stories, now given a bit of an update for the 21st century.
Still, to the novel’s detriment, the dialogues are a bit on the stubby side and everything keeps feeling a bit too much like a screenplay and not enough like a book. In terms of turning his craft into writing, this venture falls short of Fellow’s ironclad reputation on-screen.
Also, while Fellows and Co. excelled at recapturing the magic, manners and mannerisms of Britain’s Golden Age for enraptured audiences across the globe, flying solo, Fellows lacks the same graceful touch. The language feels a little too modern and the expressions used are a tad too forward for pleasant conversation, making the characters sound closer to EastEnders than to the timeless elegance of Austen or Dickens. Which is a pity, as I am quite partial to such things.
As far as I’m concerned, Belgravia’s leading roles are rather unsympathetic overall, presented as almost anachronistic upstarts whose morals and outlook would be a better fit for modern or late Victorian times than the conservative world order of 1815. At a certain point, they wish to attend a formal ball, but have no idea of how to properly address a duke and are unable to join conversations in a manner becoming the station of their newfound piers, instead skirting around unpalatable subjects such as the prospects of other men dying soon. The thought of this overambitious tradesman actually standing in the presence of the Duke of Wellington and the Prince of Orange in the Duke of Richmond’s dressing room is simply inconceivable.
Arguably, the first half of the book is marred by the fact that there isn’t a sympathetic soul in sight. The two most interesting characters are Anne Tranchard and Lady Brockenhurst – who form a curiously recognizable blend of Downton favourites Cora, Violet and Isobel. Only after the half-way point do things start to look up, when love is added to the equation. From then on, Belgravia really picks up the pace, feeling more exciting and more involving, with scenes being given a little more space to breathe.
While Belgravia certainly isn’t on a level where it can fill any Downton Abbey-shaped hole – as the byline on the cover suggests -, Fellows knows his craft, and Belgravia affords fans of the popular series an enjoyable read sure enough. Yes, it works less as a novel than as a screenplay. Still, for that same reason, I can easily picture it working cinematically and if ever a televised series or feature film should come of it, you will certainly find me glued to the screen once more.