Downton Abbey, the globally beloved British television program, is the brainchild of screenwriter, actor, director, and novelist Julian Fellowes. If you enjoy the program’s period detail and minutiae about British society, you may also enjoy Fellowes’s novel Past Imperfect.
Past Imperfect is set decades later than Downton, but like the television program, the novel is obsessed with what sets the toffs apart from the wannabes, the aristocrats from the merely wealthy. The story opens in the present day, when the late-middle-aged (and never named) narrator is summoned by Damien Baxter, a friend from his Cambridge days, who is now terminally ill. Damien has a commission for his former friend, to reconnect with a list of people they knew in the late ‘60s. Although his friendship with Damien was irrevocable destroyed by “what happened in Portugal,” the narrator feels compelled to carry out this commission, as Damien knows he will, because he dreads the guilt he’ll suffer after Damien’s death if he refuses.
Damien’s commission enables the narrator to revisit not merely his old friends but also his memories of England in the late-1960s. It was a time of immense social upheaval, when everything that Great Britain believed about itself and its centuries-old class structure was being overturned. The narrator reflects on the friends of his youth—how they were then and how they are now, the choices they made, what they had, what they lost, and what they perhaps have gained.
As he did in Downton Abbey (as well as in the excellent film Gosford Park), Fellowes brings something like an anthropologist’s eye to the British class system—its tribes, its rituals, and its strictures. His descriptions are often hilarious, if sometimes nasty, and reflect his own British public-school and Cambridge background. The jacket copy says that when asked about the basis for the novel, Fellowes said, “There are bits of many different parties and places and people. . . . The fact remains that, strange as it seems now, this world really did exist.” The settings and clothing are sometimes more real than the characters, however, and there is a sex scene late in the novel that could only have been written by a man. The book would have benefited from better editing; some passages are repetitious and some sections overly long. But if you feel compelled to visit the world of the British aristocracy (or even what Monty Python labeled “upper-class twits”), Past Imperfect, however imperfect, should fill the bill.