Fellowes, Julian. Belgravia.

NY: Grand Central Publishing, 2016.

The famous ball hosted by the Duchess of Richmond in Brussels in June 1815, while Napoleon’s resurgent armies moved in on the city, is one of the great cultural icons in modern British history. Many of the officers in attendance would be fighting for their lives against the French the next day at Quatre Bras, and then Waterloo, and for those who survived, soldiers and civilians alike, the ball was a defining moment in their lives.

Fellowes (creator and writer of Downton Abbey, who also won an Academy Award for the screenplay of Gosford Park) uses the ball as the jumping-off point in his story of the Trenchard family — James, chief civilian supplier to the Duke of Wellington (who calls him “the Magician”), and his wife, Anne, who hates her husband’s social climbing and knows that, while newly rich, they have no business attending such an upper-class entertainment. And there’s their eighteen-year-old daughter, the irrepressible Sophia, who is counting (however unrealistically) on the attentions of the Duchess’s nephew, Edmund, Lord Bellasis, himself the eldest son of an earl and therefore destined for a very different sort of wife. Edmund has essentially tricked his aunt into issuing invitations to the Trenchards and the Duchess feels ill-used at having a merchant victualer at her ball, however useful he might be to the military.

But the evening goes passably well, until the dispatch riders bring word of Bonaparte’s movements — he’s closer than they expected — and the officers must leave the ball to join their units. Not all of them will return. And that includes Lord Bellasis.

Jump to London in 1841. James Trenchard has been closely involved with the Cubitt brothers in developing some of the most upscale new neighborhoods in the metropolis and has made a fortune in the process. (This is how the Duke of Westminster became so immensely rich.) He and his wife live in a mansion now — but he’s still looked down upon as “trade.” Then we discover that Sophia was made pregnant by Lord Bellasis following what appears to have been a faked-up wedding shortly before the battle, and then died in childbirth. The bastard was placed with a childless curate and was raised well, and now Mr. Charles Pope is turning out to have a real knack for business, especially the booming cotton trade. And while he knows nothing about his true origins, he’s delighted at the mentoring his friend Mr. Trenchard is showing him.

But the caste of characters is much larger than that. There’s the late Lord Bellasis’s younger brother, a cleric and heavy gambler, and his own son, John, who can’t wait for his grandfather and father to die so he can inherit the earldom and the Bellasis fortune. There’s his fiancée, the beautiful young Maria Grey (no money but the sister of an earl, so a great match for him), who is much brighter than John. There’s Sophia’s brother, Oliver, who thinks the world owes him a living, and there’s Oliver’s wife, Susan, who hasn’t much use for her in-laws but does have a roving eye. And there’s an assortment of servants in both the Trenchard and Bellasis households, most of whom are on the make, one way or another.

The plotline is pure potboiler but of a superior kind. The Bad Guys are out to get the Good Guys, the Bellasis and Trenchard wives — both of Charles Pope’s grandmothers, that is — are nearly pulling swords on each other, Charles and Jane meet and then can’t take their eyes off one another, several of the servants take to spying on their betters, and the action fairly gallops along. From the halfway point on, you’ll have to find a quiet place to hide out so you can read the rest of the story straight through. And, given the author’s background, it’s a sure bet this Victorian romp will soon become either a lush film or a TV miniseries.

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