A Man's Man

By Patrick Anderson,
whose e-mail address is mondaythrillers@aol.com
Monday, September 17, 2007



By Diana Gabaldon

Delacorte. 494 pp. $25

Diana Gabaldon's new novel, her second about the dashing, 18th-century aristocrat Lord John Grey, popped onto the bestseller lists before I could finish reading its 500 pages. As best I can make out, there are two reasons for the popularity of this series. The first is that Gabaldon provides a rich, abundantly researched, entirely readable portrait of life among the English upper classes in the 1750s. From London's literary salons and political intrigue to fearsome battle scenes in the Seven Years' War, her writing is always vivid and often lyrical. The second fascination is Lord John himself. He's around 30, handsome, thoughtful, a brave soldier -- and gay, at a time when that's enough to disgrace an aristocrat and get a soldier hanged. Needless to say, that doesn't stop Lord John from pursuing a lusty sex life, one that will draw many readers to the novels and also turn some away.

Lord John's older brother, Hal, is the Earl of Melton. He's a senior officer in His Majesty's 46th Regiment, in which Lord John is a major. Their late father was the Duke of Pardloe, and as the novel opens their mother is about to remarry, to Gen. Sir George Stanley. In an early scene, Stanley is having lunch with his two stepsons-to-be and brings along his own stepson, handsome Percy Wainwright. No sooner does Lord John glance into Percy's eyes (which are "a soft, vivid brown, like sherry sack, and most expressive") than sparks fly. The two had previously met at Lavender House, a haven for young men of their inclination, and before this lunch is over it's clear they'll meet again. Indeed, as they part, Lord John is thinking, "Shall we be lovers, then?" Since the impending marriage will make them stepbrothers, he adds, "I don't suppose it's really incest."

As their courtship slowly unfolds -- the author contrives to keep us waiting more than 200 pages before the two arrive between the sheets -- we explore what is, at least in a formal sense, the book's plot. It has to do with the death of the Duke of Pardloe 17 years earlier, at a time when he was suspected of being part of a Jacobite plot against the government. His death was treated as a suicide, but Lord John knows it was murder and is determined to clear his father's name and find his killer. To do so, he must seek out the real Jacobite plotters and try to force the truth out of them. This search is immensely complicated and is the weakest element of the novel.

It's much more enjoyable to accompany Lord John to Lady Jonas's literary salon, where the swells preen and flirt and talk about Garrick's latest role and the new French novels. We meet "the Honorable Helene Rowbotham, whose swanlike neck and doelike eyes were exciting their usual admiration," not to mention the philosopher Diderot, who keeps a mistress, reads ribald stories to his pious wife and is missing a front tooth. Later we accompany Lord John to the hanging of a military man who has been wrongly convicted of being gay (a sodomite, as it was), to see the ugliness of the howling mob that attends the spectacle and to watch Lord John defy the mob by pulling on the man's legs to end his suffering when he is hanging half-dead from the gallows. Near the end of the book, when the brothers go to fight with the Prussians against the French in the Seven Years' War, the battle scenes are exciting, Lord John's exploits are heroic, and the wounds he suffers are quite terrible.

For all these adventures, though, Lord John's passion for Percy remains the heart of "Lord John and the Brotherhood of the Blade." It's mostly described in purple prose. "Percy Wainwright had long, dark lashes. These lifted slowly, giving Grey the benefit of those warm-sherry eyes." After a glimpse of his lover, Lord John finds "his innards performing an immediate volte-face and growing noticeably warm." When a seamstress is making suits for the two men, the author contrives to give Lord John a dizzying glimpse "of Percy's bum, clad in linen drawers and exposed to view as Percy bent to touch his toes." After they watch a soldier being flogged for theft, the aroused lovers do some flogging of their own with a cat-o'-nine-tails. In a moment of tranquility, "his head lay in the hollow of Percy's shoulder, and the curly hairs of Percy's chest brushed soft against his lips when he spoke." The sex itself is described briefly but graphically.

Either gay or straight sex can be written about well or poorly. My complaint is that Gabaldon writes about gay sex in the style that, if a man and woman were involved, we could call chick-lit. It's idealized, all aquiver with passion, and not much like sex in the real world. Still, there are obviously many readers who enjoy Gabaldon's approach, and it must be said that, dark lashes and churning innards aside, Lord John's adventures are first-rate popular history. A third installment, "Lord John and the Hand of Devils," will be released in November.

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