ONE OF THE PLEASURES of a comedy of manners is that the reader unabashedly can love the hero or heroine because there is something to love: a good heart. No matter that a protagonist is a rascal, a rake, a conniver or a fool. He glides over the polished surface of his upper-class world past characters who are truly reprehensible, so his small sins are endearing and amusing. The urbane heros of Congreve and Sheridan right up through those of Wilde and Coward have more than wit and charm. They are able to love; that is their redemption and that is what makes the works they inhabit such a joy.
The comedy of manners is more a dramatic than a fictional convention. With its glitter and superficiality, it suits the stage well, just as the detailed, textured examination of upper-class mores and society is the stuff of the novels of Austen, Thackeray and Trollope. However, Gilbert, a first novel by the syndicated columnist and Washington Post critic Judith Martin, is subtitled A Comedy of Manners, and to an extent it does fall into that tradition, observing at an ironic distance the overt behavior of the privileged.
Gilbert Fairchild, the novel's hero, is first seen as a student at Harvard in the '50s, and he is intent on gaining social cachet. Since his pedigree is not aristocratic, he decides to make a name for himself with well-connected women, even though the women "planned to marry above themselves, even the ones who seemed to Gilbert to be high enough already. At first, he wondered how they could so easily distinguish superiority among the best-of- their-generation men who were their classmates. Careful observation gave him the simple formula: Only a person who considers himself too good for you is good enough. Gilbert's conclusion was that in order to be looked up to, and not down upon, one must develop a courtship technique establishing that the object of one's admiration is beneath one's contempt." Gilbert finds this a congenial philosophy and uses it well into the second half of the novel, which takes place in Washington. Gilbert has become Special Assistant to the President, with his own White House office, male secretary, chichi wife and Kalorama Triangle house.
The tone of the novel is right for its genre: wry, amusing, slightly world-weary. Martin's eye is sharp also, as when she observes the beginnings of a love affair between a couple of sophisticated Washingtonians too enamored to finish lunch: "Neither of them could finish an entire venison-burger, and each of them had spilled a bit of wine on the white tablecloth. Once George made a remark in French about the bordello d,ecor, and Liane answered him in French, and then they had to stop at the marvel of their sharing their own secret language, while the waiter, who was from Marseilles, stood waiting for them to say something about dessert one way or another."
But despite the bright writing, Gilbert does not succeed as a comedy of manners because there is an icicle in its heart. Gilbert Fairchild is no scamp capering around Cambridge and Washington, puncturing pretensions with wit and style, offering the reader laughter as the hot air rises from another stuffed shirt. Gilbert is cold, unloveable and unloving. In his earliest sexual forays, he treats women with such crudeness and contempt the reader recoils, and then recoils again, for these women are not the self-possessed, tempestuous sophisticates of Wilde and Coward; they are defenseless masochists and it is pathetic, rather than amusing, to watch them as they give in to Gilbert.
In his early forties, Gilbert marries a 26- year-old Vassar dropout, the daughter of a diplomat. Wanda is socially acceptable and has an originality that "was not unstudied . . . she reminded him of himself, when he had been beautiful and had practiced on himself the arts he now taught to politicians." But Wanda's charm is difficult to discern. She seems to have an unusual flair for fashion, but compared with the deliciousness of, say, Gwendolen and Cecily in The Importance of Being Earnest, she is merely a slender, well- clothed, ambitious bore. She is certainly not a vehicle for bringing out the best in Gilbert.
And Gilbert's best is not terribly good. Toward the end of the novel, he is moved to work for good causes. The tone is half serious, half ironic, but the reader remains unmoved because he has not come to care for Gilbert. " 'My whole previous success was based on my knowing how others thought, but their not knowing how I worked. So that's out. Anyway, it's a bore. I never did want to go along with the crowd. If I start doing good things, for good causes, I'll drive them crazy. Get it?'
" 'Virtue, the ultimate decadence.'
" 'You got it, sister. Let's go back to bed.' "
Gilbert is an upper-middle-class Sammy Glick. Unfortunately, that sort of character does not belong in this sort of comedy.
But even if Gilbert is considered as a conventional novel, it is flawed, for the book lacks not only characters who have motivation and depth, but any real plot as well. The characters exist in static situations at Harvard and in Washington, and while a few of these situations are quite funny -- a party at the embassy of a particularly boring nation -- the characters are given no opportunity to develop. When Gilbert's social conscience begins to twitch, the reader is perplexed, for throughout the novel he has seen little evidence of any conscience, social or otherwise. He has seen manners, not matter.
There is some sharp, stylish writing in Gilbert, as well as some clever "in" jokes about living in the upper atmosphere of the Ivy League and government, but that is not enough to bring thissnovel to life.