When Waterloo is Just the Beginning
Updated: Aug 27, 2020
My first read of the new year and decade is Julian Fellowes’ Belgravia (The Orion Publishing Group, U.S. edition 2016). Yes, that Julian Fellowes, the guy who created, wrote and produced Downton Abbey. I’m a big fan of the series, so was eager to dive into Fellowes’ work as a novelist.
Belgravia is a novel of manners, although it can’t be called a contemporary novel of manners since the omniscient narrator seemingly hails directly from mid-nineteenth century Great Britain. There is almost no feeling of a twenty-first century sensibility engaging with nineteenth century mores. The inside title page gives prominent credit to Fellowes’ “historical consultant” Lindy Woodhead, who no doubt helped Fellowes get the daily realities of the period just right. (His “editorial consultant” Imogen Edwards-Jones also receives prominent billing).
The book begins at the Duchess of Richmond’s historic ball in Brussels, on the Eve of Napoleon’s Waterloo. We meet Sophia Trenchard, the headstrong daughter of merchant/social-climber James Trenchard and his more sensible wife, Anne. Sophia has managed to obtain invitations to attend the ball—which would normally include only gentry—which thrills her father and rather depresses her mother. The source of those invitations is the Duchess’s son, Edward Bellasis, who has apparently fallen in love with a young woman far beneath his station.
The story picks up twenty-five years after that night. Both Sophia and Edward are dead, but their son, who goes by the name Charles Pope, is now an up-and-coming London businessman. The rest of the book revolves around the who, how, and why of his parentage, his upbringing, and the grandparents who must now decide whether or not to reveal their relationship to him. I must confess that at times the endless conversations about this topic began to feel like a one-note tune. However, as in Downton Abbey, Fellowes is a master of the scene. We are in and out of drawing rooms, dressing rooms, bedrooms, hotel rooms, servants’ quarters, and pubs long before boredom has a chance to set in. Charles Pope’s unlikely love interest, the Trenchards’ jealous son, as well as their grasping, unfaithful daughter-in-law also play their roles, along with Edward’s fiendish cousin and several duplicitous servants. I found I couldn’t put the book down, and read it cover to cover in about two days.
Belgravia is definitely a worthwhile read, and is far more than a beach book. I had to pay attention to remember who was who and what was what. I also felt wonderfully immersed in a world almost 200 years in the past. However, the book felt shallower than Downton Abbey. Perhaps this stems from Fellowes’ background in script-writing, which depends primarily on external scene and conversation to create meaning. I longed to go deeper into the hearts and minds of the characters. I enjoyed the story, but when it was over, there wasn’t a lot left to ponder. That said, after reading Belgravia, I will never think of Waterloo in the same way!