Someone was leaving books in the post office with cheery stick-on notes saying “Free Book!” They’d often languish forlornly. I’d give them a glance, but I’m not inclined for random novels. However, Julian Fellowes sounded like a sophisticated British writer (creator of Downton Abbey). The title, Snobs, fit with that. So I took it.

Edith is an upper middle class working girl, at 27, in the mid-’90s, beginning to foresee a potentially dreary future. Then, a fluke: accidentally encountering Charles, from one of those moneyed, landed, noble houses. An Earl. She’s got enough native assets, mainly looks, that he marries her.

I expected their sexual relations would be only circumspectly described. But Fellowes mans up and gives us the wedding night in quite graphic detail. Neither disaster nor triumph; and important for what’s to come.

Charles is not a bad human being. Nor is his aristocratic mother, despite being sort of the villain. Initially, Edith revels in her status elevation; servants calling her “milady” and all. But there’s soon a growing sense of “is that all there is?”

The book is less about plot than about the kind of people in its cast of characters. And the title, Snobs, says it all. It’s not heavy-handed, but it is merciless.

One gets the picture very quickly. I asked myself, can I take 250 more pages of this? And, indeed, the rest is filled with embellishments upon the theme. Yet Fellowes is a good enough writer that it’s never a bore. (I often felt I could be reading Henry James.) You wouldn’t think there are so many ways of portraying a subspecies of people whose principal characteristic is how limited they are.

They form a web whose principal characteristic is its being a web. Fellowes calls it the “Name Game,” social interactions centered largely upon reaffirming one’s place in the web. “We don’t know them” is the ultimate and irreversible judgment. Someone outside the web cannot be “known” — not in the way that counts. Edith’s breaking through was, again, a definite fluke.

We read novels to understand people, and society; and ourselves. This book’s characters were about as alien from me as possible. Their lives being utterly defined in relation to other people, I was struck by how untrue that is for me.

I’m not an antisocial hermit. Have numerous acquaintances. But intimate friends? If honest, I must say none — apart from my wife. The difference between me and those populating the book is that I feel pretty much sufficient unto myself. I do my coin business; I read; I write. Mostly I write for my own amusement. My life’s meaning, as I go through the day, is based within me, not other people. Only my wife really exists for me. (And maybe my daughter.)

But let me add this. The older I get the more I value society. In the senses both of the milieu in which we live our lives, and of the great human enterprise. Being part of that is, perhaps contradictorily, a very big aspect of my inner life. The last five years heightened this, forcing us to face fundamental issues about our society. And I understand thoroughly how that society makes it blessedly possible for me to live a rewarding life not centered upon other people.

Fellowes says he tried to convey some aspects of the depicted type that are actually creditable, which is fair enough. He also says Snobs is not really about class but about choice; and that does come to take center stage. Edith’s choice to marry for reasons other than love was for her a largely unexamined one. Then she makes another choice — running off with a ridiculously handsome actor. Sure, people have affairs, but you can try to manage it discreetly. Edith does not. What could she be thinking?

The rest of the book is about her coming to terms with these choices — and whether she can make a further one. I give myself points for anticipating Edith’s wanting to go back, after all, to the husband who’d seemingly so bored her. Just arranging a tete-a-tete with him was a challenge, the rest of the family conspiring to be truly rid of her. I mentally scripted her speech to Charles, all that I felt ought to be said. What I, in her place, would have said. But in the end it all resolved into a single word reply.

Of just two letters.

2 Responses to “Snobs”

  1. Catxman Says:

    The British always made excellent writers, fair painters, and poor musicians. Shakespeare could never have been a rock star. That said, the Bard could probably hum along with the action in Hamlet as things went from bad to worse.

    — Catxman

  2. Don Bronkema Says:

    Enri Jymes? Oy sye! Ein hoch kompliment, but risible v-a-v carnality, wherein ee was never discrete…We always self-segregate into classes of one sort or another, aiming for arbitrary status, but a social animal can only go so far w/o risking alienation, per us ‘coggos’… Even the most brilliant fiction is a pale shadow of the complexity revealed by psychoneurology [& vastly more looming]. Kann der Mann face himself as a machine w/pretenses to individuum in a blind kosmos? The answer must be a resounding NO. Our sole & welcome escape is Messor Gravis. Every citizen deserves a cyanic potassium capsule at state expense…Meanwhile, prudes & aesthetes hope for more literature on the Jymes model, less on the Fellowsian. [saddle up: prep a column on whether Jomala can succeed; the air is thicker than the plot].

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