Lionel Savage, mediocre Victorian poet, has a problem. He seems to have accidentally sold his wife to the devil.
Moreover, when he tries to write a poem about the event, he finds that he can only make it scan if he makes devil one syllable. So whenever he tries to explain the situation to someone, he says, “I’ve sold my wife to the Dev’l,” and then has to clarify exactly what he means.
If you are the kind of person who finds the above scenario twee or unbearably mannered, Forrest Leo’s The Gentleman is not for you. But if you have a soft spot for whimsical Victorian pastiches — or just suspect you might — the confection of a book that is The Gentleman is your perfect end-of-summer read.
Over the course of the book, Savage sets off on a quest to rescue his wife, Vivien, from the devil. Along the way he’s joined by his little sister, the feisty and slightly underwritten Lizzie; his butler and father figure, wise Simmons; and his brother-in-law, the bluff adventurer Ashley Lancaster. Together, they scheme their way into a secret society for inventors, past Scotland Yard, and into a flying machine as they plot to find the mouth of hell and save Vivien.
How, exactly, they plan to rescue her remains vague. The Gentleman is the kind of book where particulars don’t matter overmuch: The point is not what Savage and company do, but how many aphorisms they compose while doing it.
The Gentleman takes place in a world in which everyone speaks like a particularly affected Oscar Wilde character. That includes the devil — the politely unassuming Gentleman of the title — who explains that he prefers to call hell “Essex Grove.”
“Does the name Essex Grove have any especial significance to you?” Savage asks.
“Oh,” the Devil responds, “certainly! I like it.”
That also includes the book’s ostensible editor and fact-checker, Savage’s cousin-by-marriage, Hubert Lancaster. Hubert footnotes Savage’s narration with corrections like a CNN chyron over a Donald Trump speech, so that when Savage says that his brother-in-law is “off conquering Borneo,” an asterisk will direct the reader to a footnote that says simply, “That is not where he was.”
Hubert is also the kind of character who will discuss his love for punctuality at length in an explanatory footnote:
I myself love promptness. I often arrive early, occasionally on time, and never, if it can be avoided, late. It has earned me the nickname “Timely Hubert,” which I like, though there are not many who call me this.
This nerd loves being on time to things so much that he’s trying to get the nickname Timely Hubert to catch on. If you don’t find that incredibly endearing, you are made of different stock than I.
As entertaining as the voice is, it is not perfect. Leo has an unfortunate tendency to abuse his caps lock key, and there is a little unnecessary flab to the narration as the characters move from point A to point B.
But overall, The Gentleman is the literary equivalent of a cream puff: sugary, airy, and all in all a complete pleasure.