Belgravia, by Julian Fellowes

This 2016 work is an old-fashioned novel, appropriate, perhaps, for a story set in the 19th century. And a not unexpected tale from the creator of Downton Abbey, the highly successful television series. It is about two families, the wealthy and aristocratic Bellasises who live in Belgravia and the wealthy Trenchards, who are nouveau riche, having made their money by developing properties, including in Belgravia. The two families are joined when, on the eve of the Battle of Waterloo in 1814, Edmund Bellasis and Sopha Trenchard meet, fall in love, and marry.

Whereupon, Edmund is killed at Waterloo, and Sophia dies nine months later in childbirth. But the baby, Charles, survives, and the remainder of the novel moves into the 1840s, where that child has become a highly successful cotton entrepreneur. And when this successful man catches the attention of the Bellasises, along with that of the Trenchards, it is more than coincidence. Indeed, it originates the complicated plot to follow, as many in the two families wonder at the interest in the other. Especially the Bellasis, who do not know that the Trenchards had sent the baby away to be raised by a Reverend Pope in order to protect the reputation of their deceased daughter.

The novel’s complications then increase as the Bellasises not only learn from the Trenchards of the connection, but also that Charles’ parents were not truly married before the Battle of Waterloo. Which means Charles is illegitimate. And so is not worthy of receiving the Bellasis inheritance. And also that Sophia Trenchard’s reputation, by giving birth to an illegitimate child, is tarnished according to norms of Victorian society.

It is the discovery of such developments and then the concealing of the disgrace that draws the reader initially into this novel. Indeed, I was continually reminded of the novels of John Galsworthy, as this novel becomes a dual family saga in which members of each family plot to make sure they will preserve or inherit the wealth and reputation of their respective families, and in which servants downstairs try to advance their own careers by discovering why each family is treating Charles so well.

But even more than the plot, my interest was initially driven by how well Fellowes has caught each of his characters, especially those upstairs but also their servants. With incisive comments, he brings us inside their thinking, revealing both their own goals and their reactions to the strategy of others. Some are good people and some are not, as they pursue the possibility of wealth and comfort, or revenge, for themselves.

Indeed, as is summarized in All About Romance: “The characters are scheming, conniving, and unscrupulous, kind, generous, and affectionate, and everything in between.”

And as an aside, the author has also used the services of an historical consultant to establish concrete details of the Victorian era that make this environment convincingly real. Moreover, as Daisy Goodwin writes in The New York Times, the novel reflects the influence of the Victorian era in another way. “The plot devices,” she writes, “will be familiar to anyone who has a passing acquaintance with Victorian fiction: There are missing papers, duplicitous ladies’ maids, gambling debts, dubious marriage lines and long-lost heirs.”

It is these various maneuverings that help the many characters jump off the page. There is ambitious James Trenchard who yearns to be accepted by the aristocracy, his wife Anne who finds social climbing distasteful, their son Oliver who disappoints because he wants to be a squire rather than a businessman and who is jealous of Charles’ success, and, finally, Oliver’s wife Susan who resents her husband’s advances and whose social ambition gives her a roving eye.

On the Bellasis side, there is the Countess of Brokenhurst who is initially disdainful of the Trenchards but who is drawn towards them when Anne tells the Countess that both have this grandson named Charles, and she knows where he is. While the husbands of the two women play minor roles in this novel, a nephew of the Countess does not. This John Bellasis is perennially in need of funds and is used to being supported by the Countess’ husband. Until now. Which makes him resentful, like Oliver, of what he considers the favoritism being given to Charles.

To further complicate matters, John is engaged officially to the beautiful Lady Maria Grey. But Maria, who has agreed to marry him only at the urging of her mother, despises John for what he is—and, when she encounters Charles, falls immediately in love. We thus have a love in the present that mirrors Sophia’s rapturous love in the past. And one that contrasts with Susan’s antagonistic relationship with Oliver.

This resentment by Oliver and John increases the suspense of the novel, as they both seek to learn why their own families are so enamored of Charles. They enlist, at times through deceit, the help of others, especially that of Susan but also some of the downstairs servants. These crafty maneuvers to learn the truth about Charles drive the suspense of the final pages, including a plan to murder Charles that highlights the novel’s climax.

I found this novel to be fascinating reading. Not least because of what Moira Macdonald cites in The Seattle Times. That is, the elaborate plot includes “contentious inheritances, forbidden love affairs, secret pregnancies, sibling rivalries, caddish high-society misbehavior, disloyal servants, and sumptuous frocks.” But interest is also driven, as I wrote, by the incisive characterizations. Which often results in cross-purpose plotting by many of these individuals, some of which succeeds and some of which fails.

Fellowes has written other novels, but they have not been what made his reputation. This novel will certainly advance his name in the literary world, but the fact that it will also be adapted to the visual media seems to suggest where his deeper commitment still lies. (September, 2019)

Flesh and Blood, by Michael Cunningham

This 1995 work is Cunningham before he found his literary voice. I did finally get caught up by this family at the end of their saga, but for much of this book it is a kind of bildungsroman, a family saga novel in which three generations come of age and a lot happens. But it is life happening rather than one or more characters influencing or motivating the actions of others. And this is the kind of novel that does not appeal to me.

Because, while there is a maturing inside the characters, there is an absence of interaction that prompts the reader to want to know what comes next. That may also be why each time I returned to reading about this family, I found it difficult to remember where I had left off. There was no moment of action, no event, that had me wondering what would be coming next.

But at the end, the characters do begin reacting to the family situation, and to the arrival of death and their own vulnerability. And I ended up being unexpectedly moved by this novel. Moved not so much by the individual fate of the characters as by an interactive portrait of family life that I could relate to.

This novel basically covers the years from 1958 to 1995, a period of significant social change. It begins with a beautiful, ambitious Mary and a shy, immature Constantine falling in love and marrying. But then the portrait of Constantine changes, for once he has children he becomes an old-school protective father, a strict disciplinarian. Whereupon, Cunningham becomes more interested, anyway, in the children: Billy (later Will), Susan, and Zoe. Will discovers he is homosexual, Susan marries a lawyer and enters an unsatisfied but comfortable life, and Zoe has an affair with a black man who leaves her pregnant. This rich material extends through the novel, but while the characters interact with sympathy regarding each one’s situation, they really do not affect each other’s situation.

The final portion of the novel introduces Ben, the son of Susan, and Jamal, the slightly younger son of Zoe. Ben is quiet, and is troubled despite his comfortable life, but we cannot more than suspect the source of that trouble until the end. Jamal is more outgoing but as a half-black boy has his own problems.

Two other major characters are Cassandra and Harry. Cassandra is a friend of Zoe’s, a transvestite, a man whose dress and social life is that of a woman. She was for me the most interesting character in the book, not least because she was very outspoken about who she is and was not afraid to bluntly advise others about their lives. Indeed, she is appreciated by the conservative Mary, who recognizes how much she has helped Zoe.

Harry, on the other hand, is not complex at all. In fact, he seems to serve mainly as an opportunity for Will to be a sexual person and to have an emotional life that is never probed. (Only father Constantine reacts to it.) Perhaps it is because I know the author is gay, but my reaction to Will and Harry is that that their relationship is never developed, and that it exists chiefly to enable the author to treat the fact of homosexuality and, early on, to describe intimate homosexual scenes. I will acknowledge the effectiveness of one such scene, however, in which a stranger lets Will seduce him and then reveals he is to be married the next day and just wanted to have such an experience before his life changed. The unfairness of a gay man’s life in that era really hits home in this scene.

My problem with this novel is that I did not care for these characters as much as Cunningham obviously did. The details of family life, the understanding that each of the children and the mother shows for the others, in fact, made me wonder how much this work may be autobiographical. This was particularly true of the gay life here. Of course, other parts may not be, because the children of this family are carefully split up to express three different life styles, the gay life, the traditional suburban life, and the life of a single rebellious girl in a world of drugs and poverty. Cunningham sympathetically portrays each child, of course, even as he exposes their failures to fulfill their dreams, thus suggesting that their suburban origin is not all it’s cracked up to be.

To sum up, this work was a disappointment until the end, when death enters and the children are finally forced to react to each other’s situation, especially to that of Zoe and Cassandra and that of Susan through Ben. A tacked on explanation of the rest of their lives was unnecessary, however, even as it leaves Jamal as the surviving heart of the family. In fact, its main purpose seems to be to reflect the traditions of the old-fashioned novel. Not that the family stories told here are old-fashioned at all.

This novel will deflect me from searching out more early Cunningham novels, but I am still interested in his more recent work. When gay life is at the heart of the novel, such as coming to terms with it, it works for me in literature. But when it is on the periphery, and yet is explored, it turns me off. Yes, the author wants to present how natural it is in some people, but I do not need to follow it into the bedroom—as I do not need to in straight love stories, either. (December, 2015)