Good Reading : September 2004
30 goodreading general fiction word of mouth I’m English. So, if you’re English too, I can slot you neatly into place as working, lower middle, middle middle or upper middle class within nanoseconds of meeting you. Born and bred squarely into the middle middle class, I can also, thanks to my education and subsequent career, more or less hold my own in upper middle class circles. But I don’t really know the English class system at all, because my experience of the real nobs – the upper class, the aristocracy, the landed gentry, call them what you will – is practically zero. (Unless you can count being squired around briefly last year by an Old Etonian with a Bentley and a posh London club? No, I thought not.) But Julian Fellowes knows the Eng- lish upper class, those he calls the Inner Circle, at first hand. He could snob-spot for England – and pretty much does. He wrote the Oscar-winning screenplay for that exquisite upstairs-downstairs film Gosford Park. Now his first novel – well, his first under his own name (he wrote a few bodice-rippers under assumed female names in his youth) – has been published, and it’s a squirm-inducing dissection of the attitudes and behaviour of the English haves and wannahaves called, appropriately enough, Snobs. It follows the fortunes, and misfortunes, of Edith Lavery, a middle-class gel with a Hyacinth Bucket-like mother, who is catapulted into the upper echelons of society by the adoration of Charles, heir to the Marquess of Uckfield.They marry, but alas Edith, disenchanted with the sweet but rather dimwitted and definitely under-perfor ming Charles, abandons the good life and runs off with a sexy actor. Edith’s return to the lower levels is drawn with excruciating accuracy by Fellowes. When she foolishly attempts to enter the exclusive Annabel’s nightclub after her fall from grace I had to put the book down, close my eyes and breathe deeply before I could bear to read on. Oh, the agonies of humiliation bor ne by England’s social climbers! Yet, when I mention this to Fellowes during our interview, he defends them gallantly. ‘I have a great deal of sympathy with social climbers,’ he says. ‘There are much more painful and horrible ambitions on earth. I don’t really see why it’s so terrible to want to what the Victorians used to call “better yourself ”; it doesn’t seem to me to be so heinous an aspiration.’ Fellowes’ affection for his characters, from whatever class, is evident through- out his very enjoyable book. His joie de vivre comes across in every part of his life, too: his acting, his screenwriting, and his private life – he is the proud husband of the gloriously posh and statuesque Emma, great-great niece of Lord Kitchener of Khartoum and first lady-in-waiting to Princess Michael of Kent; and equally proud father of clever Peregrine, aged 13. He is on a roll, and is quite rightly enjoying and relishing every moment. But it was not always thus. After a privileged childhood, Fellowes decided on an acting career – just as the cultural tide in England tur ned resolutely in favour of working class heroes. ‘I didn’t have any of the qualifications for succeeding in that era,’ he laments. ‘If you came from a private school, your thoughts could not be interesting.You couldn’t be a creative person.’There followed, despite modest but definite success in thespian circles, a long, dark night of the soul. Fellowes would be the life of the party then retur n home to anguish and bitter despair. His Hancockian years. ‘One of the worst nights of my life,’ he says, ‘was when I had dinner with Albert Finney in Hollywood, years ago. He said to me: “I know your type: you think you’ve never had a chance to show what you can do.” And of course it was exactly what I thought, but I could hardly say so.Then he said, “Listen: in this business, if you’ve got it, they find you.”Well, that depressed me for about ten years. I thought, God, if I’d got it, they’d have found me. But the truth is that I had got it and they hadn’t found me. And there are plenty of people whom they never find.’ The wonderful reality for Julian Fellowes is that ‘they’ – in the person of Hollywood film director Robert Altman – did eventually find him. Altman rang him one night out of the blue to invite him to write the screen - play for Gosford Park. After the Oscar win – ‘the madness’, as Fellowes calls it – the world is his oyster, and he is in demand everywhere. He is currently writing the script for the forthcoming Cameron Mackintosh stage adapta- tion of ‘Mary Poppins’. I’m delighted to learn that he has read and admired Valerie Lawson’s biography of Mary’s Australian creator, PL Travers, Out of the Sky She Came. I ask if he has any Australian connections. ‘Oh, yes! My grandfather was born in Melbourne, and my great-grandmother invented the slouch hat worn by the Diggers.The Felloweses have left their mark!’ Julian Fellowes has yet to leave his most significant marks, I feel. Julian Fellowes’ Snobs is published by Orion, rrp $29.95 For he’s a jolly good Fellowes Best-known in Australia – until recently – as Lord Kilwillie in the ABC’s Monarch of the Glen, Oscar-winning JULIAN FELLOWES can now turn his back on jobbing acting and concentrate on writing. ALISON PRESSLEY spoke to him about his recent novel.