The characters in Julian Fellowes' "Snobs" who watch "Upstairs, Downstairs" and think wistfully about the genteel Edwardian days of upper-class life aren't wishful thinkers, but contemporary members of the minor nobility themselves. Safely ensconced in gloomy, chintz-filled manses, comforted by their noble titles and dusty oil paintings, they hold on to their importance by creating an exclusive enclave of old-money families, an airtight club that allows few outsiders -- and, one suspects from Fellowes' novel, with good reason. Fellowes, who wrote the screenplay to "Gosford Park," covers similar territory here in a gleeful account of what happens when those who try to rise in class penetrate the most exclusive stratum of them all.
The social climber in question is Edith Lavery, "Snobs'" antiheroine. A middle-class exemplar of "the English blonde with large eyes and nice manners," Edith sets her sights on the hallowed, old-money Broughton family and, specifically, the Broughton son, an earl. Despite the displeasure of his mother, Charles Broughton falls head over heels for the lovely and intelligent Edith, and overlooking his dull simplicity and lack of charm, Edith musters enough affection to become his bride.
Despite the fact that Broughton Hall, the family's Sussex estate, "seemed to have been designed by an eighteenth-century forerunner of Albert Speer," it's the most exclusive address in the county, and several minor characters in "Snobs" spend a good deal of energy trying to solicit an invitation to the great house. Edith's marriage immediately bestows on her celebrity, based on middle-class fascination with "the mystery of unearned greatness." Still, it comes as no surprise that Edith quickly finds her new social status much less charming than she supposed -- conversations among the upper crust consist almost entirely of name dropping and repeating the basic Tory line of politics -- and her marriage to Charles entirely devoid of sexual passion (when undressed "he seemed more skinned than naked"). She quickly defects into the arms of a struggling actor, who himself is partly using her for entrie into the snobbish society of lords and ladies.
All of this is narrated by Edith's friend and reluctant accomplice, an unnamed observer who could be Fellowes himself: an aging actor with claims to minor nobility, an air of bemused detachment and a penchant for picking apart the mannerisms of those he's describing. "In England one of the saddest mistakes a social climber can make is excessive generosity," he tells us by way of explaining a disastrous dinner, during which an American couple tries desperately to impress the Broughtons. And, early in the book, he gives a lesson in shallow compliments: "To the English, skin is, as a rule, the compliment of last resort, to be employed when there is nothing else to praise. Good skin is frequently dwelt on when talking of the plainer members of the Royal Family." It's necessary to read these lines to yourself in a clipped upper-crust accent, rich with understated bemusement and excessive restraint, to fully grasp their hilarity.
Fellowes' narrator is just as forgiving as he is judgmental -- "I am not convinced that one ever knows quite enough to come down with a full condemnation," he reasons. This genial equanimity extends to the Broughtons, too, and specifically Charles' mother, the redoubtable Lady Uckfield, who harbors an "image of herself as a miraculous survival of the Edwardian age in modern England." Lady Uckfield is what Edith should have been: "Her road was chosen and she would make a success of it without pity or remorse," our narrator says approvingly. "In our sloppy century, one must at least respect, if not revere, such moral resolution."
Ultimately, it's hard to really care what happens to Edith, whether she'll get back together with Charles at the end of the book or stay with the actor. Edith, in fact, is the least interesting of the characters; Fellowes takes much more care with Lady Uckfield and Charles, skewering them and pitying them at the same time. What makes the book so much fun to read is the narrator's trenchant observations about society and the people who will do anything to be a part of it. And because it's about a world so far from most of our lives, it's a novel we can read with the slightly detached bemusement of the English.