The Pretty Gentlemen
370 pages • Max Fincher • 30 December, 2012 [PB]
Set amongst the metropolitan circle of artists, collectors and cognoscenti of the early-19th century, The Pretty Gentleman is not only obviously well-researched (as shown by the lengthy bibliography) but it is also complex, intriguing and ingenious. There is, indeed, a hint of Peter Ackroyd in its unblinking exploration of the dark, secretive and seamy recesses of historic London. It is interesting, too, in the way in which it portrays the queer subculture and how, then as now, it transcends class barriers. Barrow boys and peers of the realm mingle, socially and sexually, without distinction – or only the distinction of their natural endowments.
In the case of The Pretty Gentleman this is heightened by the intimate mixing of art patrons, artists and their male models, the latter selected from the lower echelons of society for their handsomeness and muscularity. In this heady and hedonistic milieu, horny-handed sons of toil rub shoulders (and much more) with horny aristocrats.
The chilling subtext here, however, is that whilst to live the gay life openly at that time was utterly impossible, to live it at all was highly dangerous. Because it was illegal it could so very easily lead to blackmail, disgrace, imprisonment and even the gallows. So-called ‘Greek Love’ was a world away from the simple lifestyle choice it is often (rightly or wrongly) portrayed as being today. There was also the notorious Society for the Suppression of Vice which led to raids on ‘Molly Houses’, the secret clubs where gay men, often working class, met for companionship and sex. Such raids led to the ruination, even the brutal ending, of many of their lives.
Against this backdrop of pitiless legal, societal and moral proscription, the lives and loves of Fincher’s gay characters, of all classes, are necessarily closeted, secretive and paranoiac. The consequent intensity of emotions engendered amongst this rarified demi-monde leads to a febrile atmosphere of suspicion, jealousy and betrayal which, in The Pretty Gentleman, ultimately, ends in murder and vengeance.
The Pretty Gentleman includes the stuff of nightmare, the torrid passions of the Gothic Novel being acted out in chilling reality, so it is surely no coincidence that Fincher includes the real-life artist, Henry Fuseli (he of the grotesque 1781 painting, The Nightmare) amongst his protagonists. From the author of the scholarly Queering Gothic Writing in the Romantic Age (Palgrave Macmillan 2007) this should come as no surprise.
But there is pity, redemption and a happy resolution at the end of this novel, which comes as a welcome relief after what is a rather bleak, if compelling, saga. Sadly, as Fincher points out in his Note at the end, historical truth is almost stranger than fiction. There were many actual causes célèbres of this kind in the Georgian and Regency period, which can only make one truly thankful to be living in the age we do.
Several of the novels I have reviewed for Polari Magazine recently have been self-published, which is, of course, a perfectly creditable way of bringing new fiction to the attention of the reading public. The advent of e-books in particular has largely broken down the prejudice against an undertaking formerly (and rather sniffily) referred to as ‘vanity’ publishing.
There can be one problematic consequence of this form of publishing and that is the lack of editorial mediation. It may seem paradoxical, but an author working alone is not inevitably best-placed to showcase his own talent to advantage. An intermediary between writer and public can be very beneficial, if not essential, in proofing and revising a manuscript. Self-publishing often circumvents this process, which is not necessarily of benefit to either the author or his work.
The Pretty Gentleman, an otherwise promising first novel, is such an example. On the very first page of the Prologue, there is a typo (lead instead of led). Many similar glitches – including the awkward sentence “I was floating down a river against whose current which it was fruitless to swim against” – are scattered throughout the book. Whilst these are not enough to spoil the reading experience, an able editor would have spared the reader by spotting and eradicating such infelicities. (Having said that, I should reiterate the point I have made before about the lamentable state of in-house proof-reading.)
The Pretty Gentleman would be much improved (and may yet be at a subsequent re-printing) by the input of a ‘critical friend’, not only in ironing out basic typographical errors but in ameliorating the text through tidying up, and tightening up, its structure. That said, I found Fincher’s gay historical thriller, set in Regency London, thoroughly entertaining – an emotionally and intellectually engaging read.