In a sensationalist age, when everything quickly becomes a matter of passionate intensity, is there a place for the airy trifle? Farcical, tongue-in-cheek and often just plain silly, “The Gentleman” pays homage to late Victorian melodrama and in its tone aspires to a P.G. Wodehouse-like insouciance. While Forrest Leo falls short of the master’s flair, his first novel does provide consistent amusement for an idle evening. If that sounds like faint praise, you are welcome to return to that earnest, high-minded, critically acclaimed bestseller.
But, before you do, at least read the opening paragraph of “The Gentleman”:
“My name is Lionel Savage. I am twenty-two years old. I am a poet, and I do not love my wife. I loved her once, not without cause — but I do not anymore. She is a vapid, timid, querulous creature, and I find after six months of married life that my position has become quite intolerable and I am resolved upon killing myself.”
After this self-introduction, Lionel goes on to explain how his marital plight came about. A year previous, he discovered that he had run out of money. “Where on earth has it gone?” he asked his butler, Simmons, who pointed out his tendency to profligacy.
“Nonsense, Simmons. I don’t buy anything except books. You cannot possibly tell me I’ve squandered my fortune upon books.” To which the butler replied: “Squander is not the word I would have used, sir. But it was the books that did it, I believe.”
Be that as it may, Lionel now possesses the finest private library in Victorian England. Money well spent, if you ask me.
Still, needing to fend off bankruptcy, a desperate Lionel decided that his only recourse was marriage to an heiress and, in short order, he duly wed Vivien Lancaster, the beautiful younger sister of the famous explorer Ashley Lancaster (think Sir Richard Burton). That done, he has never bothered to consummate the marriage, being absorbed in trying to finish a major work of composition. This has proved difficult, however, because ever since the new Mrs. Savage moved in, Lionel has been unable to produce anything but drivel. Moreover, the once quiet Vivien has grown increasingly sociable, throwing weekly parties and flirting with other men. She may even have taken a lover. The blocked poet hardly notices or cares.
All this, let me stress, is just the background to the novel’s main action. On the night the despondent Lionel intends to end it all, a shy, well-dressed stranger hesitantly enters the poet’s study, apparently a strayed reveler from the party going on outside. Absurdly thin, the gentleman speaks with a stammer while “his shoulders are sloped as though with inexpressible weariness.” He tells Lionel that he has dared to intrude merely to thank him for his recent expressions of sympathy for the Devil. “I had been in a dark place, you understand, but hearing a friendly word can work miracles, and I’m feeling jolly much better.”
Before long, the Prince of Darkness — who else could it be? — and the unhappy husband begin to confide in each other. Only later does Lionel suspect that “revealing one’s inmost heart to Satan may not always be the wisest course of action.” The gentleman, however, explains how profoundly lonely life is at Essex Grove, as he prefers to call Hell. When Lionel lends him his copy of Tennyson’s “Idylls of the King,” his infernal visitor departs declaring that such kindness will not be forgotten. A few minutes later, Simmons appears with grave news: Vivien seems to have suddenly disappeared from the party, indeed vanished from the face of the earth.
“It is funny,” muses Lionel, “how every time one thinks things can get no worse, they do. I think it is a metaphor for life. Or perhaps it’s not a metaphor at all and simply is life.” Feeling that honor requires that he retrieve his wife from the Devil, the sorely tried poet finds himself enlisting the help of his feisty teenage sister Lizzie (who has been expelled from school for a dalliance with the dean’s son), his explorer brother-in-law Ashley Lancaster, and the boyish inventor and aeronaut Will Kensington. In their valiant efforts to rescue the abducted Vivien, they will visit a mysterious bookshop and London’s strangest club, be arrested as anarchists, and discover that nothing is quite as it seems.
On several occasions, Leo — who is only in his mid-20s — nearly approaches Wodehouse in the zing of his similes: “The doorbell rings again, and my train of thought is derailed and several passengers are killed.” But, on the whole, “The Gentleman” only milks some of the comic promise of its subtitle, “A Truthful Account Concerning the Hazards of Love, Marriage, Duels, Poetry, Inventors, Family, Anarchists, Airships, Intercourse with the Devil, Ladies’ Undergarments, Painting from Life, the History of Exploration, &c.” Several comic set pieces go on too long, while suspenseful situations tend to be shortchanged. In addition, footnotes — inserted by a prissy lawyer, the book’s supposed editor — repeatedly interrupt the main narrative. More appealing are Mahendra Singh’s numerous illustrations, which deftly mimic period steel engravings. The somewhat static, scene-based character of the action also hints at what is only disclosed in an afterword — that the novel began life as a play.
So, yes, “The Gentleman” definitely has its flaws, but let’s cut Forrest Leo some slack. In these fraught times, even imperfect light entertainments come along so seldom that we should welcome and celebrate them. Besides, wouldn’t you like to end the summer with a smile?
Michael Dirda reviews books on Thursdays in Style.
By Forrest Leo
Penguin Press. 287 pp. $26