September 2, 2009 / 2:06 AM / 9 years ago

Swinging '60s meet upper crust in Fellowes novel

LONDON (Reuters Life!) - Julian Fellowes, who won an Oscar for his “Gosford Park” screenplay and topped bestseller lists with debut novel “Snobs,” built his reputation on recreating the fun and foibles of the British upper crust.

In “Past Imperfect,” which hits the stores in the United States this week, the British author is back among earls and baronets, London cocktail parties and debutante balls, but Fellowes says that this time his story is not about class.

“Snobs is a lighter book, an easier read,” he said in a telephone interview. “Snobs is, to a certain extent, about class, about modern class, whereas Past Imperfect is not about class, it’s about time and what time does to lives.

“In youth we are all dreaming of the wonderful lives we are going to have and part of growing old is coming to terms with what actually happens.”

The action in Past Imperfect switches between the late ‘60s and the present. Fellowes chose the timeframe because, he said, 1969 was the year of Woodstock and the peak of what have become known as the “Swinging Sixties.”

While social conventions at the time were changing for good, not everyone saw the upheaval coming.

“Looking back, I realize there was hardly a parent there who thought their daughters’ future would be anything more than an extended repeat of their own present,” the narrator says of a society ball in London.

“How can they have been so secure in their expectations? Didn’t it occur to them that more change might be on its way?”

Fellowes said “we are all changed by the times we live in.

“I’m always accused of nostalgia but I don’t think I am particularly nostalgic,” he said. “My interest is not to uphold this period against that period, but simply to observe the differences. Some we notice, some we don’t.”


In Past Imperfect, the narrator, once a member of high society, receives a letter from his old nemesis Damian Baxter, who in the ‘60s had been determined to break into the world of aristocracy to which he did not belong.

Baxter, now a multi-millionaire and on death’s door, sends the narrator on a quest to discover which of a group of young women from his past had given birth to his child and sole heir.

The device, in the words of one critic, “gives Mr. Fellowes the chance to romp through bedroom and ballroom, not to mention down memory lane,” looking back on the conventions of late-60s London and the changes going on beneath the surface, with the benefit of 40 years’ hindsight.

Reviews of Past Imperfect, already out in Britain, have been mixed, with the Guardian newspaper saying: “In the right hands, money and class are great subjects. But Past Imperfect is without moral reach and, more fatally still, lacks wit.”

But the Wall Street Journal was more positive:

“Past Imperfect shows Mr. Fellowes’s satirical talents to be undiminished. Here, though, he offers a rounded portrait of an aristocratic gratin fighting to preserve its customs and defend its turf.”

Fellowes, 60, has been commissioned to pen another country house drama, this time for British television.

He has just completed the screenplay for contemporary drama “The Tourist” and plans to script a movie about opera diva Maria Callas and her relationship with tycoon Aristotle Onassis.

Past Imperfect is published in the United States by St. Martin’s Press.

Editing by Steve Addison

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