Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Julian Fellowes - Belgravia

Julian Fellowes's Belgravia is the story of a secret. A secret that unravels behind the porticoed doors of London's grandest postcode.
Set in the 1840s when the upper echelons of society began to rub shoulders with the emerging industrial nouveau riche, Belgravia is people by a rich cast of characters. But the story begins on the eve of the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. At the Duchess of Richmond's now legendary ball, one family's life will change forever.

Comment: I tend to enjoy historical fiction once in a while. When I saw this book at a book fair after having heard some positive things about it, it wasn't such a hardship to buy it. The book has been waiting since the second semester last year but I finally got to it.

This is a romance that first started as a serial of 11 installments. When all were out, there was a compilation of them into this full length tome which is quite handy for those who didn't even know about it.  The 11 parts combined form what we can say are the chapters of the story.
The story focuses on a secret that a family wants to keep to save face and the reputation of one of their family members. When, decades after a scandal is avoided, truth comes to life again, all involved try to make the best out if it, some to preserve the secret, others to wrongly benefit from it. At the core of this novel is the need to keep up appearances and the class differences in an England always famous for its society and the need to maintain social status...

Just because the author of this book is the person responsible for the TV series Downtown Abbey, which has gained countless fans while it was aired and even after its production was finished, it doesn't mean all new readers to this book will immediately recognize the similarities to the series. I, for one, have never watched an episode, so I cannot compare. I have nothing against the series, but it just didn't captivate me enough to watch. But going by some reviews I've read, not watching the series makes the experience of reading this story a lesser one.

Anyway, all those external details aside, this novel was engaging and offered intrigue enough to compel the reader to keep going. The plot isn't complicated but the interest here is how the characters deal with the society rules of the time, namely how a compromising situation would be perceived by others and how much importance was given to social status and acceptance of oneself in society. In fact, things haven't changed that much until now, except people have different goals now and don't care much about the same rules, only the ones that exist now. What used to be frowned upon isn't a great concern but people have now other challenges to live through.

The interest of reading historical fiction or romances set in historical settings can be looked upon two ways (in my way of thinking):
- we want to see characters behave just like they should, considering the rules and customs of that time or
- we want the romance/fantasy of a love story despite those rules and such.
While the first is considered the best approach for its realism and respect for the truth/historical facts, the second if often what we look for to escape real life even if we need to suspend reality.
In this book we clearly have situations which depict the first take and although I enjoyed it, I always expected something wowing to happen next.

Nevertheless, it's the characters and their actions that make a plot develop. While respecting historical accuracy, many of the characters acted in a way I found exasperating. It might have been a convention to enjoy being part of an intrigue, to be unfaithful to one's spouse - and having them just accepting that - , to want to deceive others, to want to be entertained by the possible downfall of someone else but... I just don't enjoy much backstabbing and overall deceit in my novels, it makes me so angry people behave so badly. I often prefer the romance side or historicals focused on other type of situations where characters don't live only for the society's eyes especially to avoid being annoyed at situations I know are probably realistic. 
Is it any wonder we want to enjoy better things, like love stories in all their settings?

All these general comments apply to my take on this novel. I kept reading because the plot seemed well structured but I was always wanting to change things because the characters would do things I don't morally agree with and no matter how realistic, that annoyed me to no end. There was a big secret, yes, but people plotting to get the upper hand seems so frustrating and at times distasteful that the end, although positive in the most part, wasn't  good enough to make me have a good impression.
Still, an interesting period piece with lots to discuss about, especially if we like to put ourselves in the same situation and imagine what we would do. Except for the rules of time period detail, of course.
Grade: 6/10

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