I was one of the many mourners who were sad to see the end of much-acclaimed series Downton Abbey. Over the years I had formed a relationship with the many characters, both above and below stairs. I had empathised with their dilemmas and breathed a sigh of relief as things finally fell into place.
When I heard that Julian Fellowes was finalising Belgravia ready for publication, I was very excited, and even signed on initially for the trial period of having the first of the eleven chapters sent via an email link which could then be listened to with the accompaniment of visual and written information provided by a special app you could download.
But I am a woman who much prefers a book in her hands, so when my review copy finally arrived from Hachette I was completely taken by the sumptuous dark blue and gold cover – it is stunning, but more joy was to be found inside.
I quickly reacquainted myself with the first chapter and, within an astounding 24 hour period, had read the lot. Why? I just simply could not put Belgravia down.
The opening chapter features a ball given in 1815 Brussels the night before the famous battle of Waterloo when many brave English soldiers lost their lives. We are introduced to the main characters, young Sophia Trenchard, the beautiful but wilful daughter of the garrison victualler, James Trenchard, who is given an invitation by her lover Edmund Bellasis to attend the ball given by his aunt the Duchess of Richmond. Sophia’s mother Anne Trenchard has not the same social pretensions as her husband and daughter and attends reluctantly. Edmund and Sophia dance together all night.
During the ball, word comes that the military personnel attending must go to battle. Many die in the famous battle of Waterloo. Young Lord Bellasis is one of the casualties. The chapter closes with the family back in London and a heartbroken Sophia receiving news of her lover’s death.
It is now 1841 and James Trenchard has become a famous builder along with the Cubitt brothers. The area of Belgravia has been built in very grand style. He is now rich but is still not socially acceptable. His wife, the sensible Anne Trenchard, meets by accident at a Belgravia social gathering the mother of the deceased Edmund Bellasis, Lady Caroline Brockenhurst. The women are cool with each other, Lady Caroline aware that Anne Trenchard, although rich is not of the aristocracy. She is also aware that Anne’s daughter Sophia had a relationship with her precious son Edmund before his death.
The further nine chapters of the full eleven chapters gallop along at a fast pace as family tensions are revealed. A secret comes to light and is shared with only a few, but I will say no more here. Mr and Mrs Trenchard also have a son called Oliver who is a disappointment to his family.
Married to the avaricious Susan, Oliver is not inclined to work hard like the father he despises, but would rather be a man of leisure. Lady Caroline Brockenhurst has no other children, but her husband’s younger brother Stephen and his wife Grace have a son called John Bellasis who will eventually become Lord Peregrine Brockenhurst’s heir. However, his lifestyle is fast and licentious, and like his father, he is only waiting in the wings for his chance to live his profligate lifestyle as he chooses, without coming begging cap in hand to his uncle. He is engaged to the beautiful but impoverished heiress Lady Maria Grey who must marry according to her grasping mother, for money. Lady Maria is beautiful and intelligent, but there seems to be little regard for each other between the young couple.
Against this backdrop, we are introduced to an enigmatic but interesting young merchant, Charles Pope. Lady Brockenhurst immediately takes him under her wing and introduces him to society, but those around cannot understand why this ordinary young man should be so important to her. Tension builds as the servants of both households reveal their own personal agendas fuelled by grudges and greed.
I will not say more about the plot or the characters, as I know that this is something you will want to discover for yourself. I will say, that in my opinion, Julian Fellowes has done what he does best – bought alive Victorian London society, both rich and poor, the privileged and the social climbers. There is greed, lust, revenge and secrets aplenty, all hidden nicely under the genteel cloak of respectability.
I absolutely loved this book. All eleven chapters totally captivated me and I kept thinking I will just read one more and then go and do other things, but I didn’t. It’s a page turner, intelligently plotted, well-researched, historically accurate (as far as I can tell) and is just a totally absorbing read.
Belgravia, by Julian Fellowes, published by Hachette Australia is available from Dymocks.
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