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Mockery from Within
on 14 May 2006
This not-quite-debut novel (Fellowes wrote several romance novels in the mid-'70s under the name Rebecca Greville, including "Poison Presented" and "Court in the Terror") ought to appeal to fans of his 2001 Oscar-winning script for the film Gosford Park. A straightforward satirical comedy of manners set among the upper classes of mid-'90s England and those who aspire to join them, the book is a frothy comic brew which skewers both parties with the kind of pitch-perfect subtle writing that it seems only the British can pull off. The story is quite simple, a pretty woman from an upper middle-class family whose mother has pretentions decides to ensnare a hugely wealthy and dull aristocratic man in order to "marry up" into the upper classes which still hold such a mystique and importance in British society. The man's mother, a formidable Marchioness aims to prevent this from occurring but fails. The young woman discovers that life at the top isn't as exciting as she anticipated and runs off with an handsome actor to great scandal. Will anyone find happiness at the end?
This is all more or less narrated by a semi-aristocratic actor (clearly very much like the author) who is able to move between all worlds due to his upbringing and career. He starts the book as a friend of the young woman and a very passing acquaintance of the young man, and ends up becoming a bridge between worlds and at the latter stages, a kind of discreet go-between. It is his penetrating sardonic insights and the witty formulations thereof which lend what substance there is to this otherwise straightforward love story. Much of the novel involves the narrator spelling out the unspoken rules of the game for the reader in deliciously mocking detail. The main flaw in most satire is that it is too broad or unsubtle, but here the narrator's mockery of the artificially preserved world of the aristocracy is all the more effective from its insider position. To be sure, the characters are mostly "types" without a whole lot of substance or depth to them (the boorish rich pig, the nasty arriviste, the brisk no-nonsense wife, the ice queen, the social climber, etc.), but that's kind of the point as well. A great deal of the satire is that these upper crust people have no personality, that they are all just filling the roles they've seen before them and imagine will extend after them forever. Ultimately, the book is somewhat bittersweet in that the writing is quite amusing, but one can't help but feel slightly sorry for how unhappy so many of the characters are (even if they aren't particularly deeply drawn). On the other hand, it's not too hard to feel like it's a case of them getting their just desserts...