“Downton Abbey” creator Julian Fellowes’ new novel, “Belgravia,” has the same basic plot lines as the smash hit television show, but as entertainment, it doesn’t rise to the same heights.
by Julian Fellowes
Grand Central Publishing, 402 pp., $27
“From the author of DOWNTON ABBEY,” beams the cover of Julian Fellowes’ novel “Belgravia,” in type about as subtle as Lady Sybil’s evening trousers. Though Fellowes was a novelist before he was a television series creator and writer (his debut novel “Snobs” was published in 2005, followed by “Past Imperfect” in 2008), he’s now primarily known for one thing: six (mostly) glorious seasons of “Downton,” filled with upstairs-downstairs melodrama and fantasy vintage real estate.
Initially released as a digital serial (and how I would love to hear Fellowes intone the word “app”), “Belgravia” is now on shelves as a traditional hard-bound novel, structured in eleven cliffhanging installments. Its initial chapter takes place in 1815 Brussels, just before the Battle of Waterloo, as Sophia Trenchard, the young and lovely daughter of an up-and-coming British businessman, is thrilled to receive an invitation to a ball. Abruptly, in the next chapter, the action jumps ahead 26 years and settles in the posh Belgravia district of London, where the newly prosperous Trenchard family resides.
The surface differences between this work and “Downton Abbey” are clear: We’re in the early Victorian era, seven decades before the television series’ late-Edwardian setting; and in the city rather than the country. But Fellowes is still dealing with the same basic plot lines — which, to be sure, he hardly invented: contentious inheritances, forbidden love affairs, secret pregnancies, sibling rivalries, caddish high-society misbehavior, disloyal servants, and sumptuous frocks, the details of which are lovingly detailed.
And, despite the drama added by the serial format, “Belgravia” feels both drawn-out and a little tired; as if it were written in a hurry to a prescribed length. (Is it possible that Fellowes — who is legendarily busy with numerous post-“Downton” projects — didn’t write all of it? Unusually for a novel, an “editorial consultant” and “historical consultant,” complete with brief biographies, are credited on the opening page alongside Fellowes.) Some of the sentences, with their requisite catalogs of period detail, read almost like satire — “It was with a heavy heart that he sat down next to the fire in his large leather armchair, attempting to read some Pliny” — and many of the characters lack nuance; either impeccably good or unredeemably bad. In other words: alas, it’s rather dull. (Though I did appreciate making the acquaintance of the verb “pootle.”)
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“Downton Abbey,” of course, wasn’t perfect in its writing either (particularly post-Season 3 and the Lamented Death of Matthew), but so many of its characters were so delightful, and the performances so deliciously detailed, it didn’t much matter. Perhaps “Belgravia” would be much more fun if performed by the “Downton” cast; I found it helped matters enormously, while reading, to imagine Maggie Smith’s voice in my head for the imperious Lady Brockenhurst, and Penelope Wilton (aka Cousin Isobel) as her more modest counterpart Mrs. Anne Trenchard.
Should you be missing “Downton Abbey” and reaching for this book, let me suggest an alternative instead: William Morrow Paperbacks has published the first three seasons of the show’s scripts, complete with numerous cut scenes and detailed annotations from Fellowes — great fun for “Downton” addicts, among which I count myself. “Belgravia,” unfortunately, feels like a respectable but socially inferior cousin; it might get invited to dinner, but only out of obligation.