Past Imperfect by Julian Fellowes

Today’s young, in righteous, understandable defence of their own time, generally reject our reminiscences about a golden age

“Past Imperfect,” by “Downton Abbey” writer Julian Fellowes, plays out an interesting premise — rich old bastard Damian Baxter hires his estranged friend to track down five women from their past before he dies (and his death is imminent), for the purpose of discerning whether he is the father of any of their children.


Set in the 1960s, “Past Imperfect” concerns itself with the continued fall of the aristocracy — a subject “Downton Abbey” addresses, albeit in an earlier period of history. By the time of “Past Imperfect,” the great houses are nearly all gone, and the once-great families are living in dower houses or groundskeepers cottages, and being a bona-fide princess won’t help you land a husband if you’re not the complete package in all ways.

Our strange, patronising culture, where middle-aged television presenters dishonestly pretend to share the tastes and prejudices of their teenage audience in order to gain their trust, had not arrived. In short, in this as in so many areas, we did not think in the way that people think today

The book is largely plot-driven, and the characters are little more than sketches. Rich people doing rich people stuff.

In short, we were a product of our backgrounds in a way that would be rare

This makes it difficult to care about the premise (will the heir be found before Damian dies? and who is it?) and about the love triangle that wrenches the narrator throughout the book (the object of the narrator’s lifelong devotion seems like a perfectly nice woman, and she’s allegedly very beautiful, but beyond that, she has no distinguishing characteristics).

There we are, then.’ I smiled. ‘I like the way she cannot curse you. It’s quite Keatsian. Like a verse from ‘Isabella, or The Pot of Basil’: “She weeps alone for pleasures not to be.

Even the plot wears thin at times. Throughout the book, the characters refer to a Terrible Pivotal Event that occurred in Portugal, and when we finally get the details of said event, near the end of the book, it’s pretty anticlimactic.

Part of the reason for this is, there have been at least two other terrible events earlier in the book that were, to my mind, more interesting, and part of it is because the book’s too long (500 pages) and I had grown weary by that point. The revelation of who Damian’s heir is also fell pretty flat for me. What did work, were the class and the distinction that came through from the writing.

England, where behaviour was laid down according to the practice of, if not many centuries, at least the century immediately before, where everything from clothes to sexual morality was rigidly determined and, if we did not always obey the rules, we knew what they were.

The drama was also very mellow.

When they are in a partnership that is not going well, they attempt to inject a kind of drama into it by becoming moody and critical and permanently unsatisfied.

Do they imagine that by being demanding and edgy and cross, they will force you to work harder to make things better?

When the speaker (I suppose it’s the author since it’s written in first person POV) decides to find love somewhere else than in the marriage he was in, I was expecting explosions from the people near him. Instead plainness. He feels a “horrid sense that they were all pitying [him], pitying and despising [him]”

And when he finds his new love, the strong emotions are “overwhelming”:

We’ll have to see,’ she added and, in doing so, gave me a sense of her half-membership of the human race that was at the heart of her charm, a kind of emotional platform ticket that would allow her to withdraw at any moment from the experience on hand. I was entranced by her.

All in all, for me, the book was a bore.

Fellowes spends a great deal of time in the book (as well as in his hit TV show) engaged in analysis of/hand-wringing over the fall of the British aristocracy. In both this book and the TV show, characters who are members of the aristocracy repeatedly point out, “The world is changing. We must learn to adapt to it, or we will become irrelevant.” The book could easily be one-third shorter if all the unnecessary repetition of this were removed.

1/5 (Charity Pile)

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