Forty years ago, London was a swirl of fancy balls, tea parties, and menacing matrons on the hunt for suitable matches to pair with debutantes. That world is so alien now, it could have been an inauspicious subject for novelist Julian Fellowes’ new book, Past Imperfect, but he’s pulled it off. The novel traces the 1968 London season through the memories of its aging narrator, who was one of the young gallants and who now receives a message from a wealthy old enemy asking for his help finding a child he’s pretty sure he conceived during his party years. Reluctantly persuaded to overlook his grudge, the narrator begins a trawl through the lives of former friends and forgotten lovers.
“I do think in life there’s a moment we could choose to be unhappy or happy, and sometimes the unhappy looks more interesting. But on the whole, people are advised to choose the happy.”
Past Imperfect is Fellowes’ second novel. Originally an actor, he has written screenplays for Gosford Park, The Young Victoria, and Vanity Fair, among others, as well as the “book” for the musical of Mary Poppins. He directed Separate Lies and From Time to Time, and with so many projects in the pipeline now, it is hard to know when he’ll have time to adapt Past Imperfect for the screen.
Fellowes tells me he was once described by a reviewer as a very ugly actor with too many teeth, but from my vantage point his teeth look just fine. He should look bedraggled when he arrives for tea in the Cadogan Hotel in Sloane Street, having left the house in a hurry without his coat on one of the rainiest days of the year, but he is elegant, with a dark suit and distinguished brow.
He leans back on the sofa, legs crossed, and speaks deliberately, with a strong stress at the end of each sentence. He seems to give gratifying thought to every question and intersperses his thoughts with quick similes. Talking about his attitude to the startlingly blunt criticism many people have of his work on meeting him, he says, “You wouldn’t say to a dentist, ‘I hear my aunt had the most awful toothache after seeing you.’” But he is surprisingly relaxed about it, really, pointing out that writers encourage the public to have a relationship with them and their work.
“Because I am who I am [to quote the song], the newspapers always want everything I’ve written to be about class, but this book isn’t really about class,” says Fellowes. “This is about surviving your own past. There is a moment when almost everyone has to compare what they thought would happen in their lives with what has actually happened.”
The hunt for the missing mother that drives Past Imperfect reveals the terrible disappointments that have befallen many of the bright youth of ’68—unhappy marriages and dwindling fortunes are just the beginning. Fellowes wanted to write a book about time, and the disappeared ritual of the Season, which lasted from November to the beginning of Lent, and the coming-out balls gave him the structure. It is elegantly done and perfectly captures a ritual so remote it is hard to believe it was still in full swing only 35 years ago, and although there are a lot of transitions to and fro through time, it feels effortless.
“In the end,” he reflects, “You realize there isn’t an end product—you go to a lot of parties, you meet a lot of people, you enjoy some of them, you do this, you work, you stop doing it, and then that’s it really. There’s just a moment when you become increasingly irrelevant and then you turn into this sort mad old grandfather someone’s got go and have lunch with.” He adds philosophically that this is not a bad thing. “It’s just what it is.”
Past Imperfect is a more melancholy book than his first, Snobs, a novel of social climbing, and the characters are more carefully drawn—in Snobs, they were often cartoonish. The new book is wiser, too, and as Fellowes selects a smoked salmon sandwich, he is sage on love. The romantic fantasy in Past Imperfect does have a basis in someone he knew, he says, but: “God knows I never slept with her—worse luck. But it’s an investigation into the powerless love of youth. You think if they could only grasp how much you love them, then in some way it would come right, and of course that just would embarrass them further.”
Fellowes answers disarmingly when asked whether his narrators are him, as if it’s not for him to say. “I’m always hearing I’m like both the narrators, but they’re so unlike each other I don’t know that I can be identical to both.” That’s true. He’s nicer. The narrator of Snobs could afford to be endlessly ironic and cynical because he was bringing to life a cast of caricatures. And he’s happier.
He says he might have been in danger of turning into someone like his Past Imperfect narrator had his life taken a different direction, adding firmly that he is not an emotional cripple. “I do think in life there’s a moment we could choose to be unhappy or happy, and sometimes the unhappy looks more interesting,” he says. “But on the whole, people are advised to choose the happy.”
Fellowes’ own romantic life has been quite different from his narrator’s, and to it he attributes his success in life. At the age of 39, he proposed to his wife, Emma Kitchener-Fellowes, within 20 minutes of meeting her and when they were married, his luck changed. “In some way that’s very difficult to define. I smelt different,” he says. “I ceased to be desperate and I had a different energy.” He adds quickly, “It’s difficult to say that kind of thing without sounding like someone who sleeps amid a ring of crystals.”
One thing we can be sure of from Fellowes’ callow youth is that he sure did go to a lot of parties. A strong believer in writing about what you know, he tells me that every social occasion in the book is based on one he attended, even tea parties on dodgems in Battersea Park and a dance among Madame Tussaud’s waxworks.
“When I’m reading a novel—and I don’t read all that many,” he says, “I need to be entirely seduced by the detail into believing in the reality of this world. I very much believe in the construction of minute observation. You have to write about something you know; otherwise it all becomes rather generalized.” This methodical attention to every fireplace, picture collection, ball dress, and conversation means his new book is 505 pages long. But again, Fellowes can get away with whatever he likes: “Gosh, it’s terribly long, isn’t it? I should have told myself to just shut up.”
Molly Guinness has written for The Spectator, The Times Literary Supplement, and Literary Review, among others. She is a reporter at EuroWeek and is based in London.