Julian Fellowes is best known as the creator of the TV series Downton Abbey, a show that focused on the complex relationships between classes in the England of the past, that combined social commentary with soapy romance and melodrama, its increasingly ridiculous plot lines peppered with anachronisms in both characterisation and language. All of those things feature prominently in Belgravia, a novel whose central plot point is a 25-year-old secret and the consequences that result from that secret coming finally to light.
I won’t spoil the book by going into detail about the secret, however it is so obvious from the beginning what it is, and the eventual resolution is so clearly telegraphed that it wouldn’t be much of a spoiler if I did. It is a credit to Lord Fellowes’s skill at weaving a suspenseful narrative that even though I knew from about 1/3 of the way through what the resolution would be, I remained on the edge of my seat throughout. The characters are interesting and complex, and the novel’s shifting point of view highlights this nicely. The good guys are complexly good and the bad guys are so deliciously bad that we are thrilled by their downfall, but somehow still retain some sympathy for them. There’s truth behind their venality, truth about the absurdity of the British class system and the legitimate frustrations felt by people who were stuck on the lower rungs of its rigid hierarchy.
The characterisation and the quality of the storytelling are so strong that Belgravia remains gripping despite its predictable plot. What does harm the book, however, is the anachronisms. They are infrequent but jarring, as when one character refers to a baby being “given up for adoption.” In the early 19th century, there was no adoption to be given up to. Unwanted babies went to orphanages or workhouses, or the streets; perhaps the lucky ones were taken in by family or friends of their parents, but there was no social services, no adoption procedures, so this expression could not have existed. Moreover, considering the appalling nature of Victorian-era orphanages, this choice of language comes off as flippant and tone-deaf.
One thing that Belgravia has over Downton Abbey is that all its threads are neatly tied up at the end, satisfyingly, if occasionally in ways that strain credulity. Its themes, resolutions, characterisations, and the finely observed nuances of class and society are more reminiscent of Lord Fellowes’s earlier work Gosford Park, a film that for me gets better with each re-watch. There is enough in Belgravia to make it worth re-reading, with hope for a similar outcome.