for lovers of downton abbey, the name julian fellowes has reached high priest status. there are those of us, particularly americans, who love literary period pieces because of the glimpse they provide into class stratum. not having lived beneath our own monarchy, there is a fascination with the established pecking order laddered with dukes, marquis, knights and the like and the gulf between themselves and the working/servant classes.
rather than the glamorous edwardian trappings of downton abbey, the setting for past imperfect is the turbulent late sixties. if the teens and twenties were the last gasp of upper aristocracy, the sixties were definitely the death rattle. gone are the legions of servants silently performing the most menial of tasks. huge estates have never recovered from the war and having been used alternately as hospitals, finishing schools for girls and finally senior citizen housing, the cost of keeping up such money pits without the rents from farming tenants has proven futile. there are the carpetbaggers flushed with new money who strive towards the very level of previously unattainable respectability and in vain, sink every penny into a dream turned nightmare.
the 50 something narrator of past imperfect remains anonymous as he recounts the past events of his own circle of social haves and have nots and the implosion of their reality. there is a definitive moment of realization when all of the social posturing and rank has been washed away in the stark realization that the world has changed and they are woefully unprepared. the catalyst in this revelation is unwittingly introduced by the narrator himself as he befriends and is subsequently outshone by an interloper named damian baxter.
as the son of an ambassador barely on the edges of said circle, he watches paralyzed as handsome damian charms his way to the center, his popularity no doubt heightened by the flaunting of conventional standards coupled with an uncanny grasp of the new modernism. it’s a pill that becomes even more bitter to swallow as the object of his affection, lady serena gresham, too falls under the sway of damian’s charisma. the ensuing drama takes place over the course of a year when the last of the debutante balls are peopled with desperate mothers trying to make their daughter’s fortunes.
a fun read, julian fellowes does not disappoint with his rather keen sense of hierarchy and the skewering nuances of social snobbery. the plot in and of itself isn’t anything new but it’s the detailed observations that pulls the reader in making this a hard to put down page turner.