I’ve heard that, in these troubling times, people are finding themselves drawn to costume dramas. They seem to find them soothing, and I am definitely here for that. If people are really looking to be soothed and distracted, I’d say Belgravia will fit the bill nicely. It’s pretty, and it doesn’t have a terribly complicated plot. It’ll keep our minds busy for an hour or so every week, and that’s fine.
So, we begin in Brussels, 1815. In case you’ve never seen a costume drama before and somehow don’t know what was going on at that time, we have plenty of awkward dialogue to fill you in. (This show, I’m sorry to say, is FULL of incredibly clunky expositional dialogue. You know the kind I’m talking about: it either starts with, ‘As you know…’ or it may as well do. We get clunkers like, ‘Well, you’re Mr Trenchard’s valet, so you would know what sort of man he is,’ and ‘You’re the daughter of a schoolmaster who married a grocer and thinks you’re too good for him.’ It’s…rough.
Anyway, Brussels. Quite a lot of British people are gathered there because Napoleon’s on the march and it’s time for the Big Last Stand. One of the people there is James Trenchard, a self-made man who’s so good at finding the supplies the army needs he’s widely known as The Magician. He seems… really, really stiff, if I’m honest. It’s like Philip Glenister is incredibly uncomfortable in this role, or something. I’d say it’s an acting choice; that he’s just expressing his discomfort with his own higher social status and the company he’s now keeping, except he’s like this with his own family and it’s just really awkward to see. I hope he loosens up a bit. He’s not helping my anxiety, that’s for sure.
Trenchard has brought his whole family to Brussels with him: wife Anne, daughter Sophia, and young son, Oliver. Anne seems like she has it pretty together and is finding her way fairly gracefully through society while also being quite realistic and aware that they are still viewed as outsiders and only have the loosening up of the rules that comes with war to thank for their current ability to mix in higher circles.
Sophia doesn’t really buy any of this and is dashing ahead with a flirtation with Lord Bellasis, the only son of an earl. Her mother warns her that nothing can come of this, because they’re not high status enough, and Sophia must take care she doesn’t ruin her reputation. Still, the connection with Bellasis does score them invitations to the Duchess of Richmond’s ball, so there are definitely benefits.
Off they go to the ball, where Anne tries to guide her husband through the very subtle social rules while also keeping an eye on her daughter. Word soon comes that Napoleon is near, so all the soldiers clear out, taking Trenchard with them. Outside, Sophia sees Bellasis and the other soldiers mounting their horses and bursts into tears. Her mother bundles her into the carriage and takes her home.
They wait, listening to the far-off boom of the guns, until finally Waterloo is over. Trenchard returns home to his much-relieved wife, with the news that Bellasis is dead. He goes and breaks the news to Sophia.
And then we fast forward 26 years. Anne alights from her carriage at the beautiful Belgravia home of the Duke and Duchess of Bedford. The Duchess has invited her for afternoon tea (which, in another bit of painful dialogue, we’re told she invented. Thanks. How does that serve the story? It doesn’t. When you don’t have a character like the Dowager Countess around to sling zingers, the weaknesses in the writing start to become very clear, I’m afraid.)
The Duchess seems to be a bit of a bitch. The kind who smiles plastically and acts all friendly but clearly thinks you’re beneath her. She keeps trying to steer Anne towards (presumably) more socially suitable companions but Anne instead finds herself in conversation with the Duchess of Richmond.
(Anyone else wondering how Anne received this invitation in the first place? How did she, a very nouveau riche, manage to get a personal invitation from the Duchess for one of her at-homes? Especially since the Duchess doesn’t seem to like her much?)
So, Anne and Richmond chat, and Anne reminds her that she attended the ball, all those years ago (we are told–twice–that this is ‘The Famous Ball.’). Richmond remembers her, and also remembers her daughter, because Sophia was beautiful. She keeps banging on about that, to the point where it starts to feel weird. Anne informs her that Sophia died, not long after Waterloo, at which point I said, ‘Oh, she totally died in childbirth, didn’t she? And maybe she was secretly married to Bellasis too?’ No, I haven’t read the book, but I knew there was a scandal involved here and scandals with young women in period dramas are almost always sexual in nature, and typically include a baby at some point.
Richmond comments that it’s a shame that Sophia’s dead, because she was SO beautiful. So, so, so so so beautiful. A real beauty! Did you hear, all of those in the back? In case you couldn’t see for yourself that Sophia is played by a conventionally lovely actress? I mean, I obviously know that a young woman’s attractiveness was seen as a great benefit at that time (as it is now), but this really does seem to hammer in the point that a woman’s only worth is in her beauty. In the wake of all the MeToo backlash and recent efforts to start telling girls that that’s not the case, it’s a bit discomforting.
A little later, Anne is sought out by another great lady: Caroline, Lady Brockenhurst, who is played by the glorious Harriet Walter. Caroline asks a little about Anne’s husband and we learn that post-war he went into business with the Cubitts, who developed many of London’s most notable squares and neighbourhoods, including, of course, Belgravia. I briefly thought it was an odd pivot for Trenchard to switch from army supplying to building, but I guess supplying is supplying, whether it’s flour and bacon or bricks and mortar.
More importantly, we learn that Bellasis was Caroline’s son, and only child. Caroline and Anne have a rather nice couple of minutes talking quietly about the special, very deep pain of losing a child. Nice work from both actresses here.
That evening, at dinner, we catch up with the remaining Trenchard kid: Oliver, who has now grown up into an entitled brat and has acquired an equally entitled, bratty wife, Susan. Susan’s got her nose seriously out of joint because Anne didn’t take her to Bedford’s earlier. Anne gently reminds her that she wasn’t invited, but Susan doesn’t seem to care. You’d think she would realise that breaking rules like that are a sure way of never being invited back, or being invited anywhere again, but I’m pretty sure Susan’s not that bright and also not that good of a future thinker.
It’s pretty clear that Oliver is a disappointment to both parents. James sees his son as rather lazy (probably true) and is astonished at Oliver’s rejection of a free home in one of London’s nicest areas because the place just isn’t big enough. Anne clearly misses Sophia and hates her daughter-in-law.
After dinner, we get a completely pointless scene belowstairs where an awful lot of dialogue yields one thing we didn’t know already: Susan brought a lot of money with her when she married Oliver. Presumably new money.
Upstairs, as Anne and James are getting ready for bed, she suggests they go ahead and tell Caroline that she has a grandson. This definitely seems like a conversation they should have been having 25 or so years ago. What, she talked to the woman for about five minutes and now is all, ‘Hey, you know that super scandalous secret we’ve been working hard to conceal for the past quarter century? Let’s just go ahead and let that out of the bag!’
Unsurprisingly, James is not in favour of this plan.
Anne lies in bed and strokes a miniature of Sophia she keeps by her bed and we get a…
Post-Waterloo, Sophia goes to her mother’s bedroom and breaks the news that she’s pregnant. And yes, Bellasis is the father. Of course. Anne freaks out, as you would, and Sophia immediately tells her it’s a bit more complicated than she thinks: she thought that she and Bellasis were married.
Anne breaks in to say that she couldn’t have thought that, because she’s only 18 and needs her father’s consent to marry. Really? I’d think 18 would have been the legal age of consent in those days. Actually, I’m pretty sure 18 was the legal age you could marry without a parent’s consent (unless you went to Scotland, where the legal age was 16). After all, it was the age at which Victoria could legally rule the whole kingdom. But I’ll assume (probably dangerously) that Fellowes did his research here.
Ah! But James did give his consent! He was all for this, and so Sophia went happily tripping off to a chapel in the middle of nowhere, where she and Bellasis were married (or so she thought). And then they went back to his lodgings together and that was that.
Ok, there are a lot of things in this that make NO SENSE. Why wouldn’t James insist on going with them? That’s not just basic common sense, it’s an actual requirement–you need witnesses to a marriage (at least two, I believe). And these scenes show that the only people present were Sophia, Bellasiss, and the clergyman. She would have found this odd, if she had any brains at all. And James definitely would have insisted on being there, to ensure everything was aboveboard, unless he was either a moron or a completely negligent father. You couldn’t mess around with things like this, back then.
And why conceal it from Anne? Yes, she was trying to steer Sophia away from Bellasis, but that was only because she thought this would end up being a flirtation that would ruin her daughter’s reputation without resulting in a marriage. If a marriage was ready to go ahead, she’d probably have been behind it. So, it doesn’t really make much sense that James wouldn’t say anything to her. And considering how close Sophia was meant to be to her mother, it doesn’t make a lot of sense that she wouldn’t have wanted her mother there. Marriage is a big deal! Usually you want your mum there!
There are a lot of red flags here that are hard to ignore. I think this is just sloppy.
As it turns out, that clergyman was a fake. An army buddy of Bellasis’s who I guess borrowed a church to perform a sham marriage so his buddy could get laid. That’s not only incredibly shitty on both their parts, but bizarrely elaborate and also doesn’t make much sense. He would have a lot to lose and virtually nothing to gain from this trickery. Sophia is not some poor, friendless girl. Her parents may not have high status, but they do have money and connections, and this would have absolutely blown up in Bellasis’s face if he hadn’t gone and died. The potential fallout from something like this just wouldn’t have been worth it. If he really wanted to sleep with someone, he could have easily found someone to scratch that particular itch. It is an army camp, after all.
Anyway, as she was leaving the ball, Sophia saw the fake clergyman with the other officers and realised she’d been had (so to speak).
Anne’s rage turns to her husband, who totally screwed up here. We never actually see any confrontation between the two of them over it, we next catch up with Sophia bleeding to death after having given birth to a son in secret. Her mother is at her bedside as she dies.
And where is that son? We have no idea. I’m a little surprised that Anne didn’t try to pass him off as her own child, as she doesn’t seem like she would have been so old in 1815 that it wouldn’t be possible. Maybe she did and we just don’t know yet. We’ll just have to wait and see.