I always love sideways stories. I love it when stories are told from unexpected perspectives, or weird angles. Is your story of a global catastrophe being told by the giant supernatural frog who may or may not have prevented said catastrophe? Great. Is your gut-wrenching story of the life of a homeless man being told by the man’s dog? Perfection. Is your multigenerational family saga being told by the house the family summers in? Fuck me all the way up.
This is part of why I enjoyed The Gentleman so much. Is it a story about a deal with the Devil taking place in an alternate, steampunk London? Yup. But is it mostly a drawing room comedy about a pretty bad poet who maybe learns to be a decent husband by the end? Absolutely.
Poet Lionel Savage has a problem. Or more like a cascade fail of problems. Having spent his vast wealth on books (he has the best private library in England) he learned that he is now nearly penniless. As a gentleman he can’t work, and he’s expected to keep his beloved sister Lizzie in a decent school, and pay his faithful butler Simmons as well. Thus, he decides to marry for money. But having done that, he finds himself in the predicament which opens the book: he hates his new wife, and he hasn’t written a decent poem since their wedding. Clearly it’s her fault. But obviously no society gentleman could divorce the woman he’s married for money!
Suicide it is then.
But before he can go through with this drastic plan, he seems to, possibly, mostly accidentally, sell his wife off to The Devil.
This is author Forrest Leo’s debut novel, and in an afterword he mentions having adapted it from a play, which makes sense. It feels very much like an Oscar Wilde/P.G. Wodehouse homage. It’s light and arch, and a really fun reading experience. There are a few points when its initial life as a play might be a slight liability, as lengthy dialogue sequences slow down the action. But even that is only a small problem when the dialogue is as witty and absurd as this book’s.
Lionel Savage is hilarious on his own, but where Leo really has fun is in the constant war between Lionel’s first-person, present-tense account of his adventures, and the bitchy footnotes provided by Hubert, his cousin-by-marriage. Hubert does not approve of Lionel’s lifestyle (“Dissolute!” scoffs Hubert), he thinks his poetry’s weak, and he really HATES how he’s treated his new wife. The footnotes create a fun tension because we have prim, proper Hubert assuring us on almost every page that the things we’re reading happened—but the things we’re reading include an encounter with the devil, a steam-powered airship, a bookseller who might be immortal, and an adventurer who claims to be close to discovering Atlantis.
Speaking of whom. Once Lionel realizes that he may have (accidentally! Mostly.) sold his wife to the Devil, he barely has time to grapple with the reality of the Devil’s existence before his sister and new brother-in-law both arrive home unexpectedly. Lizzie Savage is exactly the sort of character I love. She’s impetuous and headstrong, but deeply loving, and is a sort of light comedy version of an E.M. Forster character, where she’s been given a radical education, but then has to find a way to reconcile her ideals with the realities of Victorian London. But again, this is a comedy, so she usually finds loopholes through the misogyny—or simply ignores it. Ashley Lancaster, Lionel’s brother-in-law, is a huge, bluff explorer who actually reminded me quite a bit of Percy Fawcett in The Lost City of Z.
Luckily these are the ideal people to help a dissolute poet plan a voyage to Hell, and the three eventually swing into action to research and outfit their expedition—and from here I don’t want to spoil anything, so I’ll tread carefully.
The idea to mash a fantastical quest into a comedy of manners is an inspired one, because it lets Leo duck around the conventions that might make the story rote. When Lionel realizes what’s happened to his wife, for instance, he doesn’t fall into despair or consider himself evil or marvel at his own guilt. He doesn’t consult a priest or an occultist. What he does is consider how this supernatural turn of events might result in an epic poem… if he can build his writing muscles enough to write one:
I have published nothing eight months, and the world is forgetting the tame wit of Lionel Savage. For me to compose an epic, even a comic one, would not do—it would confuse my readers. I might perhaps work my way to a place where I could publish it; but I am not there now. I have not written in a long while. If I attempted something on the scale I am considering, I would doubtless fall short of the mark. It would not be quite good enough to be good and not quite bad enough to be bad and would rather be simply mediocre, which to me is the single worst fate that can befall a work of art. I have no intention of being mediocre.
In the same way, professional explorer Ashley Lancaster is not a bro or a colonizer—he explores because he loves learning about new cultures (especially ones people think are mythical) and he hates stodgy Victorian society. He’s also a practicing Buddhist, and keeps trying to teach Lionel to meditate. (It does not go well.) Simmons the butler is even snarkier than Jeeves, and much more openly The One Who’s Really In Charge Here, which makes for a hilarious dynamic with Lionel.
But by far my favorite aspect of the book, and one that makes me hope Leo will write more genre-slipping novels, is the way he writes Lionel’s two antagonists. Ordinarily you’d think the antagonist of this story would be The Original Antagonist, Satan Himself, right? But no! The Devil is, to all appearances, a shy, lonely, mild man who like poetry and finds it hard to make friends because of the whole “being the Devil” thing. Lionel’s actual adversary is a fellow poet, Pendergast, who writes mean (but probably accurate) reviews of Lionel’s verse, frequents the same obscure bookshop that Lionel loves, and, most problematic, insists on engaging in banter every time they see each other. This is most problematic because while I love Lionel, I fear Pendergast often comes out on top in these exchanges.
It’s so delightful, as a professional writer, to find a book that centers the importance of the literary nemesis! But Leo doesn’t do this in a giant, showy way—Pendergast’s existence is simply a consistent thorn in Lionel’s side. He shows up at the most inopportune moments, with the most irritating bon mots, once even saving Lionel from a scrape, which is truly unforgivable. And I loved the fact that Leo made a point of threading this contentious relationship through the story, while making it clear that the Devil’s rather a nice chap.
The Gentleman is a lovely comic novel, but I especially enjoyed the way Leo renders the fantastical as matter-of-fact. He treats airships and trips to Shangri-la with the same light touch as Lionel’s turns through the park, and sails ahead with a comedy of manners that just happens to have a pact with the Devil as the inciting incident—and it’s a joy to read.
Leah Schnelbach knows that as soon as this TBR Stack is defeated, another shall rise in its place! And they want to reiterate that they’re open to negotiation whenever the Devil’s ready to get serious. Come join them in the Sixth Circle of Twitter!