Thursday, June 4, 2009

Past Imperfect - Julian Fellowes

This Richard and Judy Summer Read is written by Julian Fellowes, better known as Kilwillie in Monarch of the Gen on BBC television and the writer of the screenplay for 'Gosforth Park' which won him an Oscar. Like Gosforth Park Past Imperfect harks back to an earlier time
"when the customer was always right, when AA men saluted the badge on your car and policemen touched their helmet in greeting"
in other words - 1968.
In the modern day our unnamed narrator is summoned to the bedside of Damien Baxter, an old friend turned enemy, who is dying. Damien has accumulated vast wealth but is unable to father children due to adult mumps. During the debutant season of 1968 however he was sexually involved with several women and several years before the onset of his current terminal illness received an anonymous letter which would suggest that one of these liaisons resulted in a child. The narrators task is to revisit these women to establish which if them bore Damien's child so that he can leave his vast wealth to his fortunate progeny
Fellowes uses this basic plot on which to hang his look back at the 'season' of 1968, a time when the old tradition of 'coming out' and being presented to the Queen was dying out, as were the aristocracy and 'old' money. Fellowes at times can not make up his mind whether he is writing a novel or social commentary. Each house, even individual rooms, and their furniture are described - call me ignorant but what is a 'duchesse brisee day bed' - there are discussions on the wearing of white tie and smoking jackets for the gentlemen and the breakdown of parental authority.
However, what Fellowes has done well is to expose the social shifts that took place in England over the last 40 years for a particular class of person. The parents of the debs, particularly their mothers, are shown to still inhabit the old world of titles and social privilege whilst the new world of the self made man and new wealth is nipping at their heels. Their children, the debs and their beaus, feel the world turning and the cold wind of change. The device of revisiting these women and looking at the lives they lead now compared to their expectations and those of their parents in 1968, works well. Fellowes also exposes what happens to those who are unable to adapt to the new social order.
Although the thrust of the book is disillusionment with the present and a harking back with fondness to the past (most impressively dealt with when the narrator talks about his father's job as diplomat and the inadequacy of his post retirement life) the sense of privilege that pervades the book, both in terms of the characters in the novel and Fellowes obvious familiarity with his subject, blunts any message the Fellowes may be trying to deliver. These people, even in the present, have money - maybe not as much as they did - but enough. No mention is made of the lives of those who make their life possible. In 1968
'Perhaps there were only two footmen where once there had been six. Perhaps the chef had to manage on his own.'
and in the present day Damien has a butler and housekeeper.
It is easy to look back with fondness on such a past and this is an entertaining look at a time and history that most people did not experience.

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