Julian Fellowes’s Belgravia is a new book/audiobook/app series from the creator of Downton Abbey. It is set in the Belgravia quarter of London in 1841 with a prequel set in Brussels in 1815. The lives of two families, the rich, titled Bellasis family and the nouveau riche Trenchards are brought together at the Duchess of Richmond’s ball and the effects are felt down the years. It is available in ebook format, as an audiobook and as an app. I believe a hard copy of the entire story will be released on July 5th. As an aside, isn’t that a gorgeous cover?
What I liked
The serialisation. Fellowes made the decision to release his story in instalments, with one chapter each week in the style of Charles Dickens or Alexandre Dumas. Usually the chapters would end on a cliffhanger to encourage you to come back the following week. I thought it was a really interesting idea, even if I didn’t follow it in practice. Although one chapter hit my Audible download queue as regularly as clockwork each Thursday, I actually ended up listening to it in a couple of marathon sessions. As with most Audible pre-orders it hit my queue at 4am – not a time I’m likely to be sitting down to listen or read. Perhaps if each instalment were released at 8pm on a Sunday evening I’d have been more inclined to set time aside for it. I can’t comment on when the app downloads were released. Still it was a good idea, although perhaps not one that fits in well with today’s Netflix binging.
The narration. Belgravia is narrated by British treasure Juliet Stevenson who does an excellent job. She provides very appropriate voices for the gentry, the professional classes and the servants.
The app concept. I liked the idea of the app which contained both the text and audio formats. The fact that the app includes background information on the events of the episode in question and should also update the map and family trees as the story progresses is excellent. However, in practice it was rather a failure from my perspective. If you purchased the content anywhere other than on the app, you were locked out of the additional content. I was rather irritated that I paid $1.99 for each Audible audio only episode and each episode on the app costs the same and gives the text, audio and background information. A Google search indicated there was no way to link the Audible purchases to the app. I actually ordered the final episode on both Audible and the app to see if that would update the family tree – nope. I’m not certain if it was a marketing issue or a technical issue, but in any case that was poorly thought out.
The social history. I always loved Downton Abbey, seeing how the upper classes and their servants lived in times gone by and Belgravia is more of the same. What was new to this was the rise of the merchant/professional classes, seen through the Trenchards and Charles Pope, which wasn’t really a focus of Downton. Of course, I am no social historian, so I can’t comment on the accuracy, but it was fascinating.
The soapy plotline. OK, I’m a sucker for this kind of thing. As I mentioned, each episode generally ended on a revelation or twist and it was awesome.
What I didn’t like
Issues with the app. See above
Bland characters. Some, not all, of the characters were so two dimensional as to be uninteresting. As it happens one of these is the character around whom the whole drama turns. This character is so good and… nice it’s boring. The antagonist of the piece is also very much a caricature. I’m surprised he wasn’t described as twirling his moustaches. Fortunately there were enough fully developed and interesting characters to mitigate this.
Belgravia is definitely worth checking out. The first episode is available for free, so you have nothing to lose. I recommend picking it up directly on the app though, I gave Belgravia four stars out of five.