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Posh people

Merle Rubin is a contributing writer to Book Review.

If you liked “Gosford Park” but wished for more depth in the characters than the movie provided, then you’ll really like “Snobs.” In fact, if you’re a fan of Evelyn Waugh or Nancy Mitford, if you loved “Upstairs, Downstairs,” if William Thackeray’s Becky Sharp is your favorite fictional heroine or Anthony Trollope is your idea of a fun read, then Julian Fellowes’ first novel will surely please you.

The skills that earned Fellowes an Oscar for the “Gosford Park” script and that are evident in his screenplay for the most recent film version of Thackeray’s great novel “Vanity Fair” have enabled him to vault with consummate ease into the role of novelist. The dialogue in “Snobs” is indeed as good as might be expected from an accomplished screenwriter; what is perhaps more surprising is the admirable narrative control and sparkling exposition displayed throughout. More than merely readable, the writing is just plain good: witty, even aphoristic at times, salted with a range of clever literary references including “Wuthering Heights” and a pair of particularly apt Trollope novels.

If screenwriting has honed Fellowes’ writing abilities, his experiences as an actor in England and as an Oscar winner in Hollywood have given him an unusually sharp insight into the milieus in which some of “Snobs’ ” characters operate.

The same is true of his own pedigree: education at a distinguished English public (i.e. private) school and Cambridge University, not to mention marriage to a lady-in-waiting to one of the more peripheral members of the British royal family. Certainly, you could not wish for a more acute observer of snobbery in all its hydra-headed forms. Nor could you wish for a more assured and knowledgeable guide to the grand events and fashionable venues at which the novel’s story unfolds.

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In Edith Lavery, who becomes Countess Broughton and will one day be the Marchioness of Uckfield, Fellowes gives us a modern-day Becky Sharp. Indeed, so skillful has he been in enlisting our sympathy for his determined, self-confessedly grasping heroine that one finishes this contemporary fairy tale somewhat abashed at having rooted for someone who, however honest, is not really a very admirable person. But such qualms are overwhelmed by the enormous pleasure of reading such a scintillating and perceptive novel.

Fellowes excels in creating loads of amusing and memorable people to play their parts in his artfully constructed tale. A lot of fun is poked at all sorts of characters, including pathetic nouveau riche and insufferable dowagers, but it is all done with a good humor that makes it go down more easily than it might had Fellowes adopted a more waspish tone. One of the joys of this novel is that the author has a sure touch: Everything down to the smallest detail -- social, sexual, emotional -- rings absolutely true. *


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