Monday, May 2, 2011

Possibly, we should all just move to England and call it a book

Boy, it was clear, was still leaving all the dirty work to Polly. Perhaps his cold was sapping his will power, or perhaps the mere thought of a new young wife at his age was exhausting him already ..

English comedy of manners, mid-20th C

Having just indulged myself in the latest literary contrivance of Mr Julian Fellowes, I have good news and bad news. The good news is, we can all do it; the bad, for our vines at home, is that it will mean having to decamp to a cold climate. But, first, I want to claim full credit for dropping an elegant name, and for suspending disbelief that a contemporary fantasy on social climbing not written by Martin Amis may be worth destroying a favourite chair, for all the squirming it induces. I have not only pluct Past Imperfect from Mayfair's smartest shop, I have slogged through it on less than a magnum of Pommery and lived to avenge us all, here.

I shall try to see to it that what you have to do, is a little less daunt-ing. You have to remember 5 or 6 of the partners you danced with in your original set, and simply envision risking sleeping with them 30 years later. I know nobody who cannot dispatch 20 pages per tryst on that score-settling project.

You must visit each of them at the country house which garrisons their marriage, and critique their spouse and other furnishings with bitchy acumen. I know, I know; I can hear your skepticism now: and this requires a move to England?

Well, if you want to attract the gold leaf bindings of Weidenfeld & Nicolson, it does; if you want to draw comparison with The Greats - Mitford, Waugh, Coward - it does; and if you want to draw a headwaiter's zeal at Wilton's, it does. But for this, you get to be praised for waspish satire; you get to be deemed a guilty pleasure; Stephen Fry, himself (who's done this twice, to one's own library), may even deem you a thoroughbred.

Horses for courses, then, my dear colleagues. And who'd have conceived the prospect, that the new Jerusalem for reconciling our venture's Moonsome and its Gossamer wings would have found such domicile in the very capital, not only of our tongue but of its sublimest bindings?

I find nothing meretricious in Mr Fellowes' formula except, if I may, an excessively recurring interpola-tion of first-person offerings of the hoariest Britannic bigotry - toward Los Angeles, for being too meritocratic; homosexuality, for being too popular; yellow foyers, for being too frontal. He affects the cleverness of a catamite with the predictability of his client. A borrowed wit is worse than no wit at all, and it badly flattens what little bubble there is in this presumingly unassuming Prosecco. (He is almost originally funny about Pinot Grigio). Still, one can be paid for this.

Mr Fellowes is an asset of the realm, however, who is being permitted a couple of victory laps from a career of writing for other media. His hit, Snobs (2005), and now this thing will have a vogue among Virginia sorority girls, anxious to learn what to disdain; and among hardworking invitation-grubbers of either gender. He may be entitled to hang easy, for such readers; but he is not entitled to comparison with craftspeople of undisputed invention and devotion to the vitality of texts. Nothing is stirred more certainly by an hour with this derivative dram, than thirst for the untendentious trenchancy of Mrs Peter Rodd.

Julian Fellowes
Past Imperfect
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2008©

Nancy Mitford
Love in a Cold Climate
Hamish Hamilton, 1949©

ii,   James Hampson
vii, Mathias Lauridsen


  1. The feeling I derived from Snobs was that it came so tantalisingly close to being a comedy of monsters, but it lacked the necessary evisceration of most of the cast that would have given it a more moral character (and added bite). No such holding back from you today; I particularly liked the "catamite" line

    All best,


  2. O, this is a delicious sensibility you evince. So it was you, all along, monopolising Mrs Longworth last evening? I claim no such subtlety, but it certainly is alive in the citation from "Love in a Cold Climate." One notices, right away, the awareness of human exposure in Mitford which in Fellowes very seldom emerges. I can't concede this to caste or family or her time, however, as any glance at her correspondences and the works of her friends will make clear. She's just a woman one would have wanted to know, and has to settle for in lastingly humane stories.