Julian Fellowes: A jolly good Fellowes

Julian Fellowes: A jolly good Fellowes

He's the country's favourite toff. His first novel, Snobs, wrung comedy from the struggles of the modern aristocracy; the first sentence on the back cover of his new book includes the words "multi-millionaire", "heir" and "estate". Yet despite all this, Julian Fellowes insists that Past Imperfect (Weidenfeld, 30th October, £17.99) is not about class.

"Everyone will say it is about class, but really it's about time," he says, taking coffee in the rarified surrounds of the Cadogan Hotel in Knightsbridge. "It's about how all of us have expectations that we almost never meet. When we're young we think there's an extraordinary life ahead — but we have to learn that life is about disappointment."

Fellowes has not hung this theme on a limp hook. His long career in acting (most famously as the hapless Lord Killwillie in "Monarch of the Glen") and screenwriting ("Gosford Park" won him an Oscar) has schooled him in the importance of plot. So Past Imperfect grabs from the off: dying recluse Damian Baxter calls up the narrator and sends him on a mission to revisit his youthful conquests to find his rightful heir. It's a clever device, taking the narrator into the worlds of five women to see how their lives have panned out. It also enables Fellowes to interweave tales of the 1968 "Season" —where debutante girls were found matches by pushy parents — with modern-day London.

Fellowes is intrigued by how social mindsets shift from generation to generation. "Young commentators these days tend to presume everyone always thought the same as now, that somehow we were all trapped in these ghastly conditions," he says. "But every era has different expectations and conditioning — we believed different things then."

This is particularly true of the 1960s and '70s, of which Fellowes shows an alternative side — rich young things gallivanting around town Edwardian-style, enjoying balls which finished with butlers serving breakfast in the small hours. "The only part of the '60s ever celebrated is the part that won," he laughs. "We [the upper class] thought we were in touch because some of the girls wore miniskirts. But we weren't really part of what was happening, because that involved the destruction of our kind."

The unnamed narrator, of course, bears certain similarities to Fellowes, who too part in the same Season in '68 ("I was at the Queen Charlotte's Ball which finished with a gallop"). This will fuel Weidenfeld's publicity campaign and stoke reader interest. "It's quite fun to create an illusion that they're reading about your inner life, even when they're not," he chuckles. But his spell at drama school gave him a certain critical distance from the "set", before he re-entered by marrying Emma Joy Kitchener, the former lady-in-waiting to Princess Michael of Kent.

The central character Damian Baxter is a dashing chancer, modelled on an "interloper" who Fellowes introduced to the in-crowd. At the start of the novel he's a hate figure, yet it's soon clear he's more complex and astute — and the real taboo he breaks is by telling the truth. "I like characters which make the reader or viewer change their mind about them," Fellowes says.

As Damian penetrates this world, the reader is taken to the heart of the whirling'68 Season — all its archaic customs, gradations and jostling for position. "There's a theory among the upper classes that only outsiders do snobbery — that's completely untrue," he says. "Everyone has some kind of axe to grind."

With a dwindling stock of genuine aristocratic "catches", the mothers are desperate to secure a match for their daughters. "You have to remember [these daughters] were the last generation not bought up to acquire earning potential. The parents didn't have enough money to leave all their children rich, and it's not the English way to split up the family fortune. So the standards slip, until any man who can stand up unaided will do." Yet it's not all one-way traffic: the book makes clear that once in a marriage, some clever women seized all control from their hapless menfolk.

On his modern-day detective mission the narrator meets both the fallen toffs—ruddy-faced alcoholics clinging on to middle-class incomes —and those who, while publicly bemoaning the collapse of social order, cleverly invested their inheritance in property or the City. There's also the new breed of secretive super-wealthy. "I'm fascinated by the re-rise of the real Edwardian rich," Fellowes says. "In 1870, if you bought the estate in the village you assumed certain responsibilities. Now these people live apart and don't accept any responsibilities at all."

Despite the novel's rich backdrop of tea parties and Ascot, Fellowes points out that being "plain and young" presents the same problems in any society. In fact, Past Imperfect is at heart a love story, and the reader is genuinely moved by the fates of the characters. It is also a novel  that grips — with intrigue and twists to the last.

Is there a kind of mafia-style code of Omerta among the gentry? Will Fellowes be cast out? "Initially — people were shocked that I'd blown the gaffe [with Snobs]," he recalls. "A cousin said, "You must come to lunch in White's, but we'd better leave it a while." I was eventually forgiven but I know I'll get flak for this one. I'm used to it — the Left sees me as an archaic reviver of prejudice; the Right sees me as a traitor to their cause. But I think people are curious about any social group, and this is the one I can chronicle. I'm just following a tradition of accurate reportage."