Desert Isle Keeper
What a delightful, gossipy book this is. Unlike the excesses of Downton Abbey, Julian Fellowes’ Belgravia has all the tightness and subtlety of Gosford Park. It is written with the soaring arc of a saga and the delicacy of shifting emotions. At its core are two intense love stories spanning two generations and class boundaries. The women in this story, through their love for their men, shake up early 19th century aristocracy. It goes to show that people of all walks of life will do anything for the ones they love.
If one were to ascribe a theme to the book, then it would be the exploration of the early Victorian English class system. As you read along, you appreciate the subtleties of class in society and how much of an impact it had on piddling day-to-day matters and grand dynastic changes, on life and death, on life’s choices and restrictions, on behavior and dress… on everything of any import. It is meticulous research rendered superbly well.
Ultimately, it is in Fellowes’ words that one sees how the story is set.
The past, as we have been told so many times, is a foreign country where things are done differently. This may be true – indeed it patently is true when it comes to morals or customs, the role of women, aristocratic government, and a million other elements of our daily lives. But there are similarities, too. Ambition, envy, rage, greed, kindness, selflessness, and above all, love have always been as powerful in motivating choices as they are today.
The story begins on June 15, 1815 at the Duchess of Richmond’s famous ball in Brussels before the outbreak of war at Quatre Bras that eventually led to the Battle of Waterloo. Sophia Trenchard and Edmund Bellasis are young and in love. They’re living under the looming shadow of war and are eagerly, if furtively, seeking to eke out every drop of magic from their experience that they can. Unfortunately for them, society does not look kindly upon their relationship, for she is the daughter of the Duke of Wellington’s wartime supplier of goods and he’s a viscount, heir to the Earl of Brockenhurst.
Edmund convinces Sophia that he wants to marry her and they go through a secret ceremony in front of the parson. Sophia soon finds herself in the family way. On the night of the outbreak of war, however, Sophia is shocked to the core to find out that the parson she thought married them was actually a solider friend of Edmund’s masquerading as a clergyman. In the meantime, Edmund perishes in the fighting at Quatre Bras and some months later, Sophia dies giving birth to her son, Charles.
In order to preserve Sophia’s reputation, her parents arrange for the child to be brought up by a vicar and his family, and the Trenchards provide for his education.
The story then moves forward to London in 1841. James Trenchard, Sophia’s father, has made a grand fortune in property development, and his wealth and influence grants him entrée into many select aristocratic events. Anne Trenchard, Sophia’s mother, finds it distasteful to insert herself into a society that rejects people like her, but James thrives on those opportunities for social climbing.
James is perennially disappointed in his son, Oliver, whose upper class-style upbringing renders him useless for his father’s style of hard work in trade. Oliver wants to be a squire at their country estate, but James wants Oliver to work alongside him in his business and they clash endlessly over their differences. To add to the emotional maelstrom, Oliver’s wife Susan is unhappy with her lot in life. She has social ambitions that are thwarted by Anne, and she’s disappointed in her distant husband. She develops a roving eye to alleviate her boredom.
One afternoon, Anne attends a tea in Belgrave Square where she once again meets the Duchess of Richmond. With the passage of time, the war memories seek to bring them together rather than set them apart. However, this does not go down well with the duchess’s sister, the Countess of Brockenhurst, whose son was Edmond Bellasis. Anne’s and the countess’s acrimonious exchange has all the hallmarks of not just class prejudice but also of grieving mothers who think their precious offspring is the one who was wronged that fated period in Brussels.
Anne feels an unwilling kinship to the countess, and in a moment she continually regrets later on, she informs her of Charles’ existence. And thus Anne perpetuates all the push and pull on the emotions of the Trenchards and Brockenhursts/Bellasis that Charles’ presence in their lives entails. The driving force behind the novel is the fact that only the Earl and Countess of Brockenhurt, Anne, and James know that Charles is their grandson. No one else, neither upstairs nor downstairs knows this. Their respective households are eaten alive with curiosity as to why Charles is given such prominence in the lives of these four people. It is the uncovering of this secret to which the majority of the novel is devoted.
There are many things to enjoy about this book, but there are three things which really stand out. First is the episodic format. The book is divided into eleven episodes with scene breaks in each episode but no chapter breaks. So the usual chapter arcs, which break-up the narrative into small chunks, are missing, which I think is the strength of this novel. Freed from small chapter constraints, the episodic format makes for a longer story arc that allows for more control over the pacing. In general, Fellowes’ narrative has a strong forward driving force with no sags and unnecessary fillers. This is not to say that there aren’t quiet, reflective moments. This isn’t a David Baldacci hard-boiled thriller by any means, but neither is it gentle like Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand.
I also liked the people and how they approach life and its ups and downs. You don’t see hysterics in this book, despite the devastation felt by the characters. They handle the situations and manage their emotions with a laudatory competence and bear up under hardships with admirable restraint. The characters come across as thinking individuals, who are not simply reactive. This is not to say that they’re passive; they’re scheming, conniving, and unscrupulous, kind, generous, and affectionate, and everything in between.
Finally, I liked the book’s deep immersion in place and time. Fellowes has really excelled in highlighting the telling details and nuances that make the story set in the early Victorian period so believable. Women’s gowns, hair styles, house interiors, the London streets, titles, attitudes, thoughts, and so on – they’re scrupulously spot-on and in exquisite detail that was fascinating.
If you’re a fan of historical fiction or historical romance set in England in the 19th century, I highly recommend Julian Fellowes’s Belgravia. It’s a rich, complex, engrossing story told very well.