Book Review: Past Imperfect, Julian Fellowes

Damian Baxter is dying. A veritable Croesus, he has amassed an enormous fortune but is dying alone. Despite never knowingly fathering any children, a letter received years earlier implies the opposite. Too ill to investigate himself, he calls on the only person who can help – an acquaintance from the sixties when both men were young and enjoying the last throes of the traditional English society season. This man, our narrator, revisits the haunts of his past, finally facing the memories which he buried for over forty years. What follows is an intriguing look at the past, the mistakes of youth, and the endurance of love over decades.

At the end of the sixties in London, the tradition of debutantes and the society season was coming to an end. While the upper classes tried desperately to cling on to their links with the past, a young and handsome Damian latches on to our narrator, an unattractive boy on the outer reaches of society, who he uses as a foothold upon which to gain entry. Using all the charm at his disposal, he wins the hearts of all the richest society girls before his success comes to a shocking conclusion on a group holiday in Portugal.

Our narrator, in search of Damian’s elusive lovechild, must revisit the haunts and friends of his past who he has hidden from for forty years. In doing so, he learns that not everything was how it appeared to the young boy whose life was dictated by hierarchical tradition, and that even those with the greatest promise can come to nothing.

This is a moving, absorbing, and often humorous tale of lives irrevocably affected by one man. One by one, the narrator revisits his friends and reviews their involvement in both his and Damian’s past. One by one, more of the events which led to that fateful holiday are revealed. Not only is this the tale of one man forced to face his past, but also of how he faces up to the person he has become.

It is difficult to do justice to the intricate and complex story in a short review. There is an utterly convincing depth to the varied characters and personalities, and the sad, amusing and poignant recollections of a man looking back on his life are captured in almost photographic detail. The style of writing is such that it is easy to imagine that the nameless narrator is the author, Julian Fellowes speaking directly, recalling incidents from his own life. This is never implied, but the prose is littered with small asides, making it feel like being spoken to directly by a close friend. As the story continues and Damian’s past secrets come to light, the closeness of the narrator to the reader makes the events which unfold all the more harrowing.

The first hand recollections bring the period to life, and the book as a whole provides a fascinating insight into the time. Highly recommended, this book is a tribute to the last hurrah of old fashioned high society.

Katherine Holt is a recently graduated illustration student from Yorkshire, England. When not reading she spends her time penning short and full length fiction under the pen name of ‘Miss H. writes’, as well as reviewing books for various magazines. Examples of her work can be found at