Initially written as a memoir while waiting to be executed, George Rowlands’ is less a coming-of-age and more a coming-of-death story. He writes a cautionary tale of a young working-class artist-in-waiting, who is taken to heady heights with the help of his patron, Sir Henry Wallace. When a slowly growing sexual tension between student and patron erupts into passion, Rowlands’ good fortune turns to betrayal and he is left waiting for the hangman’s rope.
The pacing of the story is rather interesting. The first part seems to be more a development of Rowlands’ character and his relationship to Sir Wallace. We experience how the community of artists worked at the time, the trending artistic methods and mediums, the influence of the artistic elite and the function of patronage and the Royal Academy in furthering the success of select aspirants. The historical setting is immersive and satisfying as we watch the rise and inevitable fall of the protagonist.
Towards the end of the story, the book evolves into a murder mystery and this changes the pacing and feel of the plot. Murder, mistaken identity, the implication of (what were thought to be) minor characters, revelations, conspiracy; the development is intriguing. I can imagine that for some, this pace change might not be welcome and I can fully appreciate that those who expected a murder mystery might have been frustrated with the first half of the book. However, my expectations worked in reverse. I expected an historical drama and was fully enjoying it when I was introduced to a “whodunnit” in the final half. Additionally, rather than veer toward the spectacular, the murder mystery stayed true to the earlier exploration of the mechanisms and constraints of the society at the time.
Rowlands is the protagonist and I was satisfied with his development throughout the story. His hopes and naïvety, his burgeoning desires towards other men, and particularly towards his benefactor, Sir Henry Wallace all rang true. His observations throughout the story, his curiosity, sensitivity and paranoia were all portrayed well.
It was interesting to see that resignation rather than terror kept him company while waiting for execution. He knew he was a victim, to be flung under the wheels to protect Sir Wallace and he almost seemed to accept that inevitability in the end. It is perhaps the result of living in a society where the illusion of equality isn’t apparent or necessary.
The wife of Sir Wallace becomes a more prominent character towards the end of the story. The wife always knows, but despite this she continues to provide plausible deniability for her husband – his proclivities, a secret for which she remains complicit. Her role in the mystery is revealed at the end, but her commitment to remain her husband’s shield, while probably quite realistic, still seems baffling to a contemporary reader.
The writing was very effective. I did notice a passage where the tense changed in an unexplainable way and I read through a scene where a certain piece of dialogue was repeated in an illogical manner, but these were just small one-off issues.
Overall, the prose was successful and there were some passages of searing beauty; in particular, a scene where Rowlands was sketching a model and describing the perfection of the male form. Such a scene could have been tawdry and eroticised, but the author chose to create art instead and the result was impressive.
The Pretty Gentleman is an early 1800s historical drama with an element of murder mystery. It’s the coming-of-age tale of a young artist growing up in a society from which he would eventually be expelled once he’d become inconvenient. It’s also a fascinating look at a time in our past when homosexuality was practised in secrecy for fear of reprisals.
I really enjoyed this book and would recommend it particularly to those who like historical dramas.
Price at the time of review: $2.99 US
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