For some readers, Julian Fellowes’ latest book, “Past Imperfect,” will be an interesting peek at a world very distant from their own — just like his previous bestseller, “Snobs.” For another group, this latest novel, out now, will be a look in the mirror.
“People love being the basis even when the character is quite unsympathetic,” says Fellowes. “The sad thing is when they think they are the originals and they are not.”
This story first appeared in the September 15, 2009 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
Fellowes looked to his own past for the book’s protagonist: just like his creator, he is a diplomat’s son and Cambridge grad who became a writer of note and moves easily through the upper echelons of British society. (In real life, Fellowes has a title, Lord of the Manor of Tattershall, and his wife is lady-in-waiting to Princess Michael of Kent.) Readers follow as he unravels a mystery and the narrative flashes back and forth between the England of 2008 and London’s 1968 debutante season.
“Evelyn Waugh said, ‘Novelists don’t make much up,’” laughs Fellowes. “Like the narrator, I was a very unimportant member of that world.” Nevertheless, Fellowes, now 60, was frequently called upon to serve as a deb escort. “I was invited to those parties because they were short of men….In a funny way, to be an unimportant guest is a better vantage point.”
His vantage point, and his memory, must have been excellent, since the very parties he attended in real life are reproduced in “Past Imperfect” down to the last flower. Such attention to detail betrays Fellowes’ desire be a literary historian of his generation (he mentions Proust when pressed — “but that’s probably pushing my luck,” he jokes).
“I like the idea that I’m committing things to paper that might otherwise be lost,” Fellowes says.
Not everyone is happy with his record-keeping. “[Especially] after ‘Snobs,’ there was a feeling in some quarters that I’d blown the whistle and drawn public attention to a group of people who live very much out of the limelight,” says Fellowes.
Despite what critics in his native land have said about “Past Imperfect,” he insists he was not setting out to produce a novel on the power struggle between England’s titled aristocracy and new money. “It’s about time — the comparison between what we thought life would be when we were 18 and what it turned out to be,” says the writer.
Fellowes can hardly claim to be upset by his own fate: After making his career as a professional actor for many years, he became an Oscar-winning screenwriter with 2002’s “Gosford Park,” directed a 2005 feature, “Separate Lies” and had his own eponymous BBC series. Up next is “Young Victoria,” which he wrote and stars Emily Blunt as the future Queen Victoria. The film will be out Stateside in November.
Perhaps as a result of such kind treatment from the film industry, Fellowes is fond of Los Angeles, despite its vast differences from his Dorchester home. “In Hollywood, no one cares about your background, whether you’re the son of a duke or a dustman,” he says. “They just want to know if you can do the job. And I think that’s great.”