Almost a Gentleman, by Pam Rosenthal

28 Oct

Almost a Gentleman, by Pam Rosenthal

Set in the early 1800s in England, Almost a Gentleman is Ms Rosenthal debut novel and another sleepless night for yours truly (and this was a long night, since it is 380 pages long). Published originally in May 2003, it was reissued in December 2007 after her second novel, The Bookseller’s Daughter, had come out.

For whatever reason, I had endeavored to forget everything and anything I had heard about this novel—other than the title and author—when it was first released, and I am incredibly grateful I did. Because if I had known the central gimmick—the McGuffin, if you will—it’s quite likely I would not have wanted to read it, and that would have been an utter shame.

Here is the back cover blurb:

A daring masquerade…
For three years, London’s haute ton has been captivated by the cool elegance of a dandy named Mr. Philip “Phizz” Marston. Tall, refined, an expert gambler with a cold, unerring eye for style, Marston’s lightest comment can blackball a gentleman from society’s most exclusive clubs. But what keeps the ruthless social climbers attuned to his every word and move is something more unsettling… a grace and beauty that leaves women and men alike in a state of unthinkable yearning…

… will be deliciously undressed…
Lord David Hervey must be losing his mind. How else explain the disturbing desires he fells whenever his eyes meet the penetrating gaze of Mr. Marston? When he overhears a threat on the gentleman’s life, he intervenes and alone discovers the glorious truth… beneath the bindings of Mr. Marston’s masquerade hides an exquisite body that is every bit a woman’s…

… and every hidden desire, revealed.
Armed with desire and entrusted with her bold game, Lord David won’t give up till the day the lady gives in, revealing herself to him completely, surrendering her deepest secrets with every persuasive pleasure he can offer…

After a terrible loss, Lady Phoebe Claringworth transforms herself into the fashionable Mr Marston with the help of a devoted friend, Lady Katherine Beverredge, an old tutor, and a truckload of determination and bitterness.

The masquerade is made believable by the care taken in explaining that it is a deliberate and long term con that is being played, not a haphazard charade. The main player and all his (her?) confederates are very much aware of the risks and take each necessary precaution deliberately. By keeping the secret to a very select few and playing her role every waking moment, she has minimized the possibility of exposure as much as humanly possible.

Yet there is a freedom in being Phillip Marston—single, unencumbered, trend setter, both mysterious and ubiquitous—that would have been inconceivable to Phoebe Claringworth, and pulling the wool over Polite Society makes the effort not just worth it, but sweet indeed.

For his part, David is intriguing in his wholesomeness. At first glance, he would seem too good to be true—stock hero material. He has honor, integrity, curiosity, a sense of responsibility towards those who work for him. But there is a depth to his character that is revealed little by little as events unfold, and he is confronted with the reality of the life Phoebe has led for the past few years.

The characterizations are really excellent, from the two protagonists to the many secondary characters, their motivations and personalities are built up, layer by layer, seamlessly. There are no instances of info dumping or excessive exposition. Most of the background information needed is derived very naturally from the current action.

There were a few things that made me stop and blink—have I mentioned ever how obsessive I can be about internal consistency? For example, if David’s son is twenty, and he is just over forty, and his wife died five years prior… then they were together only for fifteen years and not twenty, or the math just doesn’t work.

Then there is the seeming abundance of closeted (okay, the closet part was normal at the time) homosexual gentry who had some sort of interest in Mr. Marston.

While there are a few references to unsavory rumours and courting social ruin, it is never truly explored just how negative the consequences could be for a gentleman openly known to be homosexual, let alone what effects—social and economic—association with such a character would bring upon others. Wouldn’t David think twice, and more, about what consequences his behaviour would have on his own son?

And I couldn’t help but wonder how the deception was carried on during Phoebe’s monthly courses (love the euphemism, don’t you?) when, in theory at least, only one person in her employ knew the truth. It is a bit more jarring perhaps because Ms Rosenthal takes pain on mentioning other items of an intimate nature and explaining how those are dealt with.

Then there is the matter of the use—not terribly often, thank goodness—of a few specific words to describe female genitalia. The problem is probably all mine, but having a female character, purportedly of gentle upbringing, self describe (in her own thoughts) using the word q—m simply yanks me out of the scene.

Still, I loved the first 365 pages, because all these are truly minor quibbles. The writing is so vivid and the characters so real and immediate, that I got lost in the novel. It was a long night, but it didn’t feel so… until the last fifteen pages or so.

The final confrontation with the villain of the piece is dramatic enough—perhaps even just a bit melodramatic—but it is what happens after it that left me unhappy as all get out. This person has caused grievous bodily harm to be visited upon an innocent person; tried to kill two people, planned to kill yet another one… yet, after much talking around it, is left to go home to reflect upon the evil that was averted.

Pardon me but, what the hell?

And yet, I truly, honestly, and deeply love the writing, the characterization, the story, all the rich detail, inner dialogue, background detail… everything! up to that last chapter and the two page epilogue.

*sigh*

Almost a Gentleman gets 9.5 out of 10—it’s that good even with the ending.

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