I haven’t read a book like this for what feels like a very long time – set in Belle Époque France, it reads like the 19th century French novels I devoured and adored when I was a confused young man. My literary needs have changed somewhat since then and I might have hesitated if I’d known exactly what I was getting into (specifically that what I was getting into was about eighty gazillion pages long and the first book of a goddam trilogy) but I found The Second Footman nostalgia-inducing and pleasurable and intriguing and hard going all at once.
It evokes time, place and cultural context superbly – although I should confess that my sense of historical authenticity basically stops at noticing if characters check their iPhones or turn on light before electricity was invented. On the other hand, I also suspect that historical authenticity is as much to do with how something feels as anything.
Anyway, Max is an ambitious young man with a mysterious past. He manages to first find a position with the duchesse de Claireville, who is known to employ – and sleep with - comely footmen, but when that doesn’t work out for him embarks on an affair with the Marquis de Miremont.
That’s, uh, kind of it. Obviously there’s Themes And Stuff as well, but it’s a slow book, almost a series of intensely detailed character studies, which is simultaneously frustrating and rewarding. Although possibly I’m just shallow. I mean, when I was gripped, I was very gripped, and the intricacy of the character work, the slow reveal of history and motivation, was necessary to show all the subtle ways they affected and influenced each other … but, yeah, sometimes I bogged down. On the other hand, something I found consistently compelling was the generosity afforded to most of the important characters in the text – even the vilest, like Achille de Tarascon are allowed moments that, while they may not redeem them, at least illuminate them.
I also really enjoyed the intersections of the hidden world of servants with the hidden world of same-sex desire, and burgeoning homosexual identity. And, equally, there was something pleasantly normalising in the ‘reality’ of both those worlds – while Armand, the Marquis de Miremont, struggles initially with the morality of his inclinations, Max is an unquestioning, equal opportunities seducer. And the relationship between Max and Armand develops very naturally, both sexually and emotionally. One of the Major Themes TM explores the spaces between truth and falsehood, and constructions of reality, and this - again – filters really effectively through ideas of class, sexuality, and selfhood.
Both Max and Armand are deeply flawed, but recognisable and appealing characters. I liked the way Max’s pride and ambition often pushed him to the point of genuinely immoral behaviour, and the way Armand’s privilege – and instinctive nobility – was both strength and weakness. They spend a lot of time misunderstanding and misreading each other, for quite understandable reason but – honestly - I’ve probably been reading too many romances because I kind of basically spent most of the book wanting those two crazy kids to work it out. So the return of the actual plot, and a reminder of The Themes TM, at literally 99% to completion came as a nasty shock.
The end of the book was, to me, it’s biggest disappointment. After all that slow and careful build, it didn’t actually seem to go anywhere. It wasn’t even a cliff-hanger, just a bald reminder that I’d read eighty gazillion pages, there were Themes and a Plot, thank you, and good night. I pouted. I mean I didn’t necessarily need Max and Armand to run into the sunset, holding hands and giggling, but it was kind of the emotional equivalent of when you think you really need to sneeze, but then you don’t. Also the bit where the book explicitly tells you what the book is about is a bit of a low:
Of course, the old fellow was a throwback, not even to the ancien régime, but to some chivalrous and quite possibly mythical period long before. Whereas he, Max, was the coming man, cool, ruthless, unburdened by God or morality: the future.
Um, yeah, I know. I’ve just read eighty gazillion pages exploring those very ideas so I kind of noticed them.
This said, I did really enjoy The Second Footman. I appreciated the depth and artfulness of it, and the queering, naturally, which just exists as part of the historical, political and personal tapestry. There isn't enough of that in fiction.