Julian Fellowes’s Belgravia by Julian Fellowes. Grand Central Publishing, 2016.
I read Belgravia quite a while ago now, but I’m excited to review it because it is a unique work. Back in April, I wrote a post describing this book and the fact that I had just started reading it online. The uniqueness of the book is in the format: it is a serialized novel. In the history of literature, this is certainly not unique, but I’m not sure if anyone in recent years has done anything like this on the internet. Each chapter of the story was released on a weekly basis for people like me who had subscribed, and I kept up with it as one would a TV show. This was a popular practice in Victorian magazines, and appropriately, Belgravia is a Victorian story. The cool thing about reading this online was that it had extra interactive content with the story: videos, maps, family trees, photos, etc. As you read the story, you could click on different hyperlinks that would display pop-up historical context and additional background information about Victorian life in London. It was an interesting reading experience, and I would definitely do it again. The anticipation was heightened as I waited for the next installment, and I liked that a lot. I liked how I could also then be reading another book at the same time while I read this one; I don’t typically love reading more than one book at once, but with this, I did. I’d be excited to see this kind of serialized novel online again.
However, as a writer, I will say that Julian Fellowes would be best to stick with screenwriting. For those who don’t know, he wrote the TV show Downton Abbey, which I was a fan of while it was on. (That and the fact that it was serialized was what made me want to read this). But the writing was not great. Prose is pretty important to me in whether or not I like a book, and Fellowes is no Dickens. His writing is too simple, straightforward, and to-the-point (granted, he wasn’t being paid by the word for his serials like Dickens). What description Felllowes provided was so simplistic that it almost felt as if I were reading a screenplay at times. He did a lot of telling rather than showing, which is the first thing they tell you not to do in Creative Writing 101. As a result, I felt that the characters were very flat and 2-dimensional. On screen, I’m sure they would have had just as much texture and complexity as the Downton Abbey cast, but he didn’t have actors to bring his characters to life this time – that was his job, and he didn’t quite accomplish it.
What I really liked about the book, however, was the plot. As a fan of Downton, the amount of drama and intrigue did not disappoint. The basic premise is this: James and Anne Trenchard are part of the newly emerging middle class in Victorian London, representing the type of “new money” aristocrats are not cool with. Years earlier in Brussels, their daughter got tangled up with the heir to a great family fortune, got pregnant, and died in childbirth (all in the first chapter). The problem is that the young couple never got married, so the child had to be sent away and raised never knowing the truth. Years later, the child becomes a part of the Trenchards’ lives again and things get real complicated real fast. There are love triangles, shifty secret-sharing servants, greedy scheming aristocrats, the whole 9 yards. The plot was definitely what was keeping me excited to read each week’s chapter.
The book has now been released in hard copy. I’m interested to see what the physical book looks like; I’m wondering if they included any of the extra information that was online. I think the novel was very effective as an online serial, but I’m not sure it will be as effective as a single novel, for the aforementioned reason of lack of writing quality. I kept coming back each week because I wanted to know what would be the next twist in the plot, not for the characters or the writing, so I hope the plot can carry the single volume novel just as well. It really got me thinking about how the mode of reading affects your relationship to the text. I’m not sure I would have liked this book as much as a normal novel because it felt more like I was watching a TV show as I read the serial. I would still recommend Belgravia to Downton fans or fans of historical fiction in general. 3/5 stars