Julian Fellowes’s screenplay for Robert Altman’s Gosford Park hummed with virtuosic ambition; his first novel does not. In Snobs, Edith Lavery, a Jewish accountant’s daughter, contrives to marry Charles, the Earl Broughton. Accomplishing this, she finds that Sussex life bores her. Edith upends her achievement by conducting a heavily media-saturated affair in 1990s London with Simon Russell, a dodgy married actor sexier than her honorable dull husband.
The wildly intrusive unnamed narrator is Edith’s tweedy actor friend; his upper-crust vagueness recalls Evelyn Waugh’s observation that all English gentlemen draw the line of demarcation just below their own heels. Fellowes’s narrator adores cataloging the ways of “the English upper classes,” as he forever puts it. Fellowes replaces Waugh’s stark subtlety, his mystical atmospherics and sense of place, with posh chat. It’s as if Fellowes is writing for one of those modern publications hell-bent on explaining to benighted readers what chairs are.
After a crowded start where a slew of characters awkwardly compete for narrative focus, the book rallies in its second half when the pack finally thins out. “Those houses,” Charles’s piece-of-work mum declares of country estates the significance of which she believes lost on her errant daughter-in-law, “are fun to stay in. . . . But they’re hard, hard work to own.” Despite its bright finish, Snobs needs more writing like that. And less (Waugh, once again) talking down the phone.