Belgravia | Julian Fellowes | 2016 (30 June) | W&N | 411p | Review copy | Buy the book
On 15 June 1815, the Duchess of Richmond hosts a ball in Brussels which will pass into legend as one of the most magnificent yet tragic parties to have taken place. The very next day many of the noble young men who danced that night away would lie dead – the ball took place on the eve of the Battle of Waterloo. In attendance was Wellington himself and at the end of the last dance he led the men off to war.
James Trenchard, his wife Anne and their daughter Sophie were also at the ball, rather surprisingly, because they were not people of title or family. But James Trenchard is victualler to Wellington, his efficiency and diligence earning him almost the friendship of the Duke, the title of ‘Magician’ and, at the very least, earning him and his family a ticket for the greatest ball of the season. Sophie creates quite a stir in her own right, not just for her beauty but also because it is clear that she has caught the eye of Lord Edmund Bellasis, the sole son and heir of the Earl and Countess of Brockenhurst, a match clearly, in the eyes of its witnesses, out of Sophie’s reach. But this night will change the lives of more than one family. All will be left reeling but it won’t be for many years, in 1841 to be precise, that the full significance of events will be understood.
Belgravia was originally published this year as a series of eleven episodes made available by app – a modern interpretation of the Victorian habit of serialising novels. I’m not one for this sort of reading experience, I must admit, and so I was delighted to be given the chance to look at the novel when published as a whole and rather handsome hardback. The author Julian Fellowes is of course the creator and writer of Downton Abbey, a series to which I have a quite irresponsible addiction, and so I was ready to lap up this novel in which Fellowes turns the clock back even further, to 1815 and, most of all, to 1841.
I immediately fell for the style of prose. I love the lightness of it as the words dance across the page. It is extremely visual and vivid. I also enjoyed the way in which the characters are revealed through their manners, their sense of reputation, their attitude towards people of another rank, whether they be people of business or servants. It is most elegantly done. The houses, dresses and gatherings are beautifully described. This is a social world in which the appearance of things matters very much indeed but, as the novel progress, the true nature of these people is revealed, bit by bit. Sometimes the result is ugly but at other times it is touching and emotional.
There is a mystery at the heart of Belgravia – both the place and the novel – that we are privileged to know more about than many of the characters. This is essentially a small group of people and many of them become involved with others resulting in a knotted mess for some. As you’d expect from the creator of Downton Abbey, below stairs does become involved but not that much and also not in a particularly complimentary manner. It is, dare I say, a bit snobbish in these sections. The above stairs sections are by far the most successful and attention stealing.
The story is more straightforward than I expected. Essentially it examines the impact of one figure on a number of increasingly interrelated families of varying social status. The mystery itself is one that would have little impact today but has a huge potential to cause disaster in these early years of the Victorian Age. And yet there is a modern feel to several of the characters, particularly the women (who are given the best roles), and so it can feel a little incongruous on occasion. The figure at the heart of the mystery is arguably the least developed but there is a goodness about him that gives the novel, and the characters that come to know him, warmth.
Belgravia is a light, elegant read which takes us back to a particularly interesting time, when the modern world was beginning to encroach through railways, politics, commerce (even afternoon tea), and the old ways were under threat. Here they are placed directly under attack and it is fascinating to watch the layers of civility, the politeness, stripped away. Although the biggest surprise is that the further these people fall into the shadow of scandal, the more likeable they become and, at the very heart of this novel and story, is love. At a time when I needed the comfort of the novel equivalent of chocolate and red wine, Belgravia fit the bill perfectly.