LONDON — If you think you know British aristocrats, think again, because the novelist and former fashion designer Bella Pollen is casting some fresh light on the subject.
“The Americans get it so wrong,” says Pollen, whose third book, “Hunting Unicorns” (Grove Atlantic), a U.K. bestseller that was released earlier this summer in the U.S., focuses on fictional aristocratic families struggling to keep up their costly family estates.
“In films, they depict the upper classes as Dame Maggie Smith on speed. Of course, bumbling buffoons do exist and deserve to be jibed at, but the dichotomy is that younger generations have gotten the downside,” adds Pollen in a telephone interview.
“They are born with a label they don’t want and didn’t ask for and have to pursue successful careers to pay for the upkeep of houses they don’t want to live in.”
Maggie, the heroine of Pollen’s novel, is a feisty American journalist who’s forced into covering the decline of the British aristocracy following its removal from the House of Lords. But she’d much rather be reporting from the Middle East.
“She starts out with negative opinions on the upper classes, which represent the views of most people initially, including myself,” says Pollen, who is descended from the Earls of Radnor but grew up in New York, where her father set up Sotheby’s in the U.S.
Pollen returned to London, without a title or a stately home, at age 12. “I didn’t really understand class issues, and embraced the notion that aristocrats were people who were completely uncool and had nothing to do with modern Britain.”
Like Maggie, Pollen realizes nothing can be so black and white. Although the book is humorously written, with drunken earls and a cash-strapped countess who believes her imported American buffalo will enable her to make and sell mozzarella, there are many dark undertones.
“The book deals with universal problems of addiction, parental expectations, inheritance, duty and the balancing of all of this,” says Pollen, who lives in Notting Hill with her publisher husband, David Macmillan, grandson of the former Tory Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan.
According to Pollen, many of the characters are based on real people; she also contends that all of the bizarre anecdotes are true. After all, she has had a fair amount of dealings with the aristocracy — when she had her women’s wear line in the Eighties, her fans included the Princess of Wales, and her husband’s grandfather was given a hereditary peerage.
In Pollen’s case, truth is even weirder than fiction. Her own great-grandmother kept a lion that bit a postman and consequently had to be sent to the Bristol Zoo. That same grandmother once lived in a mud hut in Africa.
With a film adaptation in the works for next year, Pollen has only one request. “Maggie has to be played by somebody feisty — Maggie Gyllenhaal would be perfect,” she says.