Review: Julian Fellowes – Past Imperfect

So the most recorded TV programme EVER was the Downton Abbey Christmas Special (presumably this is only since the advent of set top boxes etc where they can keep track of these things, which makes me live in hope that ITV’s showing of Red Sonja in 1991 still may have pipped them to the post and remains languishing on VHS in homes up and down the country). Brainchild of serial cliche graverobber Julian Fellowes, it has given rise to a new UK penchant for what’s been called stately home porn. Apparently now we can all take refuge from the hardships of the recession by seeing what a tough (but also lovely!) time they had of it in Edwardian times. Difficult to run a 35-bedroom house, sure, but didn’t the women always look well turned out? But here’s the thing! It wasn’t just a tough time working beneath stairs, trying to maintain your dodgy dealings or upright, stalwart, Protestant morality while scrubbing 3 miles of grates every morning. Oh no, it was tough to be an aristocrat too, what with making sure the inheritance goes to the right chap, finding someone to marry, and keeping oneself out of the tabloids. Nauseating class sentimentality abounds throughout the series, although it makes a great soap opera, and like everybody else now I want to know whether Bates is getting off the hook.

The point! The point is, when I started to feel a little queasy on the apparently unsinkable SS Nostalgia (did I mention Fellowes’s latest project is a TV adaptation of Titanic?), I wondered whether Julian Fellowes could possibly turn his hand to anything other than the same old class stereotypes? Surely his novels couldn’t be exactly the same as his screenplays?

Heavens no! You see, Past Imperfect is set in 1968, where everybody in the upper classes is trying to pretend its the 20s, but thanks to the sepia-coloured narration we can tell that their days are numbered, and what a surprise, you can tell that they kind of know it too. The narrator, now a writer, was a peripheral part of the debutante set who introduced a charming, handsome, distinctly middle-class interloper Damien Baxter into their set. A natural social climber, Damien seems intent on penetrating the upper-class sanctum and soon has plenty of affluent debutantes falling at his feet, but which is put paid to by  *something terrible* which happens one dinner while the whole jolly set vacation in Portugal. Something so terrible that conveniently nobody can speak of it directly, so we’re forced to hang on to the bitter end to find out what it is [spoiler alert: he doesn’t go postal with a WWII service revolver OR reveal he’s slept with everyone’s parents OR take a dump on HRH Princess Dagmar of Moravia’s bed in full view of the assembled company, as much as you wish he would by that stage].

Forty years later, Damien – now a millionaire tycoon – calls our narrator to his deathbed to announce that he thinks he’s fathered a child by one of six of these women, and wants to find out whose his rightful heir is so he can find some meaning in his depressingly affluent, empty life.

And so, this writer faithfully calls up each of these women in turn to solve the mystery, and revisits his memories of their relationship with him, and Damien, in the process. Despite being confessedly unremarkable and unattractive in his youth, he is inexplicably perfectly recalled by each and so amicable that over a lunch or a cup of tea each woman is only too eager to confide certain salient details that conveniently eliminate them from his enquiries. Their husbands don’t understand them, but our narrator does, so that’s okay. Each were so beautiful, and so full of promise, but are now washed up and miserable in their own ways. In fact, he manages to patronise pretty much every single character, doling out the elegies for the lost promise of the waning aristocracy and pity for their dashed hopes and dreams that lucky for him, only his nomadic existance as a writer seems to escape.

Don’t worry though, the lower classes get their spot in the sun too – for example, when he visits a village fete after visiting Damien:

Naturally, it was very old-fashioned, and I am sure that if a New Labour minister could be offended by the Last Night of the Proms, she would be rendered suicidal by the sight of this comic, uniquely English event, but there was goodness here. These people had worked hard at what I would once have judged as such a little thing, yet their efforts were not wasted on me; in fact they almost made me cry.

Well you can fuck off from my tombola stall, Julian Fellowes, that’s for damn sure.

When he’s not making snide asides at the ‘Health and Safety Stasi’ and New Labour of the present day, there are actually some interesting digressions into upper class traditions, although the way that they are condensed into mini-essays suggests a quick shoehorning in of research. But equally, you get doozies like this:

To employ a phrase not actually in use for twenty years after this, I decided to cut to the chase.

…where a diligent proofreader seems to have questioned his choice of cliche, only for him to spectacularly miss the point. Is that more charitable than suggesting someone wrote that first time round? I don’t even know anymore.

Anyway, you’ll be forced to trudge on through this mire of condescension to the bitter end because, I’ll hand it to him, the man makes you want to know whose the bloody baby is, and what happened that night in Portugal. So maybe it is a great novel after all.

Rating: 
In a tweet: Upper or middle-class, rich or poor, you’ll never be as wise or as modest as me, Julian Fellowes.

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