Hold on to your bonnets historical fiction fans! Today is the official debut of Julian Fellowes’ Belgravia, a new serialized novel by Downton Abbey’s creator/writer. Set in London in the early Victorian-era, the story follows one family’s life and how a secret from twenty-five years earlier, changed them forever.
Austenprose is honored to be the first stop on the Julian Fellowes’ Belgravia Progressive Blog Tour which will, over the course of ten weeks, travel through the ether visiting popular book bloggers and authors specializing in historical fiction and romance. Today we will be recapping and reviewing the first episode, “Dancing Into Battle.”
Released in 11 weekly installments, each episode of Julian Fellowes’ Belgravia will conclude with twists, turns and cliff-hanger endings popularized by the novels of Dickens, Gaskell and Conan Doyle in the nineteenth century. Delivered directly to your cell phone, tablet or desktop via a brand new app, you can read the text or listen to the audio recording narrated by acclaimed British actress Juliet Stevenson, or jump between the two. In addition, you will have access to the exclusive bonus features available only through the app including: history, fashion, food & drink, culture and more that will frame the story while immersing you into the character’s sphere. In addition, the first episode is totally free!
Here is a short video on how it all works:
And now…with introductions aside, let’s jump right into episode 1, “Dancing Into Battle.”
RECAP: (spoilers ahead)
“It’s like a battleground, here.”
The story opens in June 1815 in Brussels, a city immersed in the activity of war. Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte has recently escaped from exile on Alba and rallied his troops against the British and her allies. His advancement toward the city has put the residents and the military on high alert.
Eighteen year-old Sophia Trenchard and her maid Ellen Croft bustle down a crowded street determined to reach the military supply depot where she finds her father, a civilian supplier for the Duke of Wellington’s vast army, in a heated discussion with a smartly uniformed officer. Her arrival is a welcome interruption, even more so when she presents three invitations to the Duchess of Richmond’s ball to her father. Pleased and excited by her success in obtaining the coveted entre into a high society event, the focus of their conversation quickly shifts to that of concern for his wife’s reaction, who they fear will be reluctant to attend.
Back at home, Anne Trenchard is pensive and cautious. She knows that the invitations came because of Sophia’s pressure upon Lord Bellasis, her latest beaux and Lady Richmond’s nephew, and not because of their social rank. Her husband may be in Wellington’s good graces, but their humble origins always give her pause.
“We’ve only been asked because somebody’s let her down.”
“What difference does that make?”
“It’s so silly.” Mrs Trenchard shook her head. “We won’t know a soul there.”
“Papa will know people.”
Ball gowns are altered at the last minute and the Trenchard’s arrive for the grand ball – all anticipation by some and anxiety by others of their party. Sophia is eager to sepend time with Lord Bellasis, the son of an earl. Her mother cautions her not to seek castles in the air. “He cannot choose his wife only to suit his heart.” Anne Trenchard knows that if they were in London, Bellasis would not have been able to obtain the invitations for them, nor would he be in a flirtation with a tradesmen’s daughter. “[E]verything is coloured by war and so the normal rules do not apply.”
The Duchess of Richmond’s Ball by Robert Alexander Hillingford (1870s) via Wikipedia Commons.
The Duchess of Richmond’s penchant for lavish entertaining was well known. Everyone worth knowing would attend, oozing British confidence with their military and political power by dancing the night away as Napoleon’s troops advanced toward the city. While “the shimmering glow of the many candelabra cast the proceedings in a subtly glamorous and flattering light,” the presence of the tradesmen Trenchard and his family is remarked upon by Lady Richmond’s third daughter, Lady Georgiana Lennox.
“Who are these people that Edmund has forced you to invite? Why don’t we know them?”
Lord Bellasis cut in. “You will know them after tonight.”
“You’re not very forthcoming,” said Georgiana.
Lady Richmond is not amused. She does not like to be made a fool of and feels that her nephew has tricked her into inviting people below their station. The Trenchards are introduced to Lord and Lady Richmond by Bellasis, who is very happy to see Sophia looking as fetching as ever.
“Sophia curtsied to the Duchess who looked her up and down, as if she were buying a haunch of venison for dinner, which naturally she would never do. She could see that the girl was pretty, and quite graceful in her way, but one look at the father reminded her again, only too clearly, that the thing was out of the question.”
Lord Bellasis escorts Sophia into the ballroom, and by his feigned indifference, Lady Richmond knows that “the situation was almost out of control. Perhaps it was out of control already.” How could she ever explain her unknowing participation in their relationship to her sister?
As dignitaries and royalty arrive, Lady Richmond’s concern for the lovers continues and is noticed by her husband who offers to talk to Edmund after the ball. At midnight, the Duke of Wellington arrives after the party has been in full swing for two hours. He notices his supply agent James Trenchard and congratulates him on his invitation. Trenchard immediately expresses his concern to the duke regarding a great deal of conversation in the room about Bonaparte’s advancement. Others see the duke and seek his assurance that the rumors are unfounded. He confirms that they are true and they will all be off to fight tomorrow. Anne is aghast.
“How terrible.” She turned to watch the couples whirling round the dance floor, most of the young men in their dress uniforms, as they chattered and laughed with their jewelled and curled partners. How many would survive the coming struggle?”
As the dancing and merriment continues, Anne Trenchard locates her daughter, who has spent far too much time with Lord Bellasis to avoid the spiteful notice by the gossips. She advises Sophia not to monopolize Edmund’s time, but the couple is defensive and she acquiesces to forestall the appearance of arguing in public. As she observes the other couples in the room, she wonders “how the threat of war, the near presence of death, seemed to heighten the possibilities of life. Many couples in this very room were risking reputations and even future happiness, to gain some satisfaction before the call to arms pulled them apart.”
Intelligence of the Battle of Ligny (1818) by William Heath, depicting a Prussian officer informing the Duke of Wellington at Lady Richmond’s ball that the French have crossed the border at Charleroi and that the Prussians would concentrate their army at Ligny. Via Wikipedia Commons.
Shortly after, a messenger in muddy riding boots arrives at the door seeking the Prince of Orange, who in turn approaches Wellington. The news is not good. Napoleon is closer than they anticipated. Mr. Trenchard is corralled into a private room for a conference with Richmond, the Prince and Wellington. A map is produced and Wellington decides that his army will concentrate at Quatre Bras and then selects the small village of Waterloo as the sight of battle. The time has come. They must leave immediately. “The flower-filled rooms that had been so fragrant and elegant when the evening began, were filled with scenes of heart-rending goodbyes.”
The Trenchards find Sophia weeping in the arms of Lord Bellasis. He departs with fellow officers. Outside, Sophia and her parents wait with a crush of party guests for their carriage. Across the square, she sees Bellasis mounted on his horse with a group of officers. “It was exactly at this moment that Anne heard a gasp behind her. Her daughter was staring at the group of soldiers below them. “What is it?”… She shuddered and let out a sob that seemed to be torn from the roots of her soul.” The next day, after the battle, the list of the dead is staggering. Many valiant young men have died, including Lord Bellasis.
It is always a good sign when a historical fiction novel begins with a scene of a beautiful young women defying propriety. I immediately admired Sophia Trenchard for her gumption at walking through the busy business district of Brussels (with her maid in tow) to her father’s work place – a military supply depot swimming in uniforms – and unabashedly heading directly into his office. This is a woman who knows her own power in a male dominated world and how to weld it.
Her father’s ambitions have raised his place in society from their humble beginnings, yet he craves more. While the invitations to the Duchess of Richmond’s ball delights him and his daughter, they have the opposite effect on his wife Anne, who is cautious and doubtful that they should attend, and even more skeptical that her daughter’s romantic alliance with an earl’s son will end badly. This dichotomy of personalities is an interesting mix – ripe with the possibility of conflicts and heartbreak.
The Minuet, by Frederick Hendrik Kaemmerer (1890)
Attending a society ball with the characters was quite heady. When one thinks of the Regency-era, and especially the ball room scenes made famous in Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer novels, the hairs on the back of my neck stand at attention. Fellowes did not disappoint. There was enough description of the decor, music and ball gowns to properly set the stage, quenching fans of the era. The characters that filled the ball room are what really added interest and potential for the future. Fellowes is building his world and framing personalities beautifully.
The end of the episode was puzzling – and meant to be, by design. We are not really sure what the big secret is. Why is Sophia gasping and sobbing over the sight of the group of officers that Lord Bellasis is with? Later, we learn that he dies at Waterloo. Not entirely a surprise for me, but a big shock for our heroine.
It is early days, but the opening was spare in its simplicity, yet brimming with potential.
- What qualities did you admire in heroine Sophia Trenchard? Which are you concerned about?
- Do you think Anne Trenchard’s cautious behavior was warranted?
- Why would the Duchess of Richmond be uncomfortable by the Trenchard’s attending her ball?
- The final scene at the conclusion of the ball where Sophia sees something, or someone, that makes her gasp and sob is startling. What do you think she saw?
Please visit the next stop on the progressive blog tour of Julian Fellowes’ Belgravia at Edwardian Promenade, where author and blogger Evangeline Holland will discuss Episode 2: A Chance Encounter.
Julian Fellowes’ Belgravia will be featured in a progressive blog tour April 14-June 16, 2016. Similar to a “progressive dinner party,” where a group of friends each make one course of a meal that moves from house to house with each course, a “progressive blog tour” is the same concept applied to the Internet. Eleven historical fiction bloggers and authors are participating, each taking one episode of the novel and offering a recap and review for that week. As a participant, you will follow the tour and join in the read-along and conversation. A fabulous give-away contest, including three (3) hardcover copies of Julian Fellowes’ Belgravia will be open to those who join the festivities.
- April 14 – Austenprose.com: Episode 1: Dancing into Battle
- April 14 – Edwardian Promenade: Episode 2: A Chance Encounter
- April 21 – Fly High: Episode 3: Family Ties
- April 28 – Calico Critic: Episode 4: At Home in Belgrave Square
- May 05 – Luxury Reading: Episode 5: The Assignation
- May 12 – Risky Regencies: Episode 6: A Spy in our Midst
- May 19 – Book Talk and More: Episode 7: A Man of Business
- May 26 – Mimi Matthews: Episode 8: An Income for Life
- June 02 – Confessions of a Book Addict: Episode 9: The Past is a Foreign Country
- June 09 – Laura’s Reviews: Episode 10: The Past Comes Back
- June 16 – Gwyn Cready: Episode 11: Inheritance
Win a Copy of Julian Fellowes’ Belgravia
In celebration of the release of Julian Fellowes’ Belgravia, Grand Central Publishing is offering a chance to win one of the three (3) hardcover copies of the book!
To enter the giveaway contest, simply leave a comment on any or all of the stops on the Julian Fellowes’ Belgravia Progressive Blog Tour starting April 14, 2016 through 11:59 pm PT, June 22, 2016. Winners will be drawn at random from all of the comments and announced on Austenprose.com June 23, 2016. Winners have until June 30, 2016 to claim their prize. The contest is open to International residents and the books will be shipped after July 5, 2016. Good luck to all!
Julian Fellowes’ Belgravia
Grand Central Publishing (April 14-June 16, 2016)
eBook & audio, (352) pages
Disclosure of Material Connection: We received one review copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. We only review or recommend products we have read or used and believe will be a good match for our readers. We are disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”
Cover image courtesy of Grand Central Publishing © 2016; text Laurel Ann Nattress © 2016, Austenprose.com