Nineteen year-old Max is the duchesse de Claireville’s second footman, but he does not intend to endure the indignities of service for long. He has a plan-to find an aristocratic patron who will become his unwitting accomplice in an audacious fraud. It is true that in 1880s’ France, despite nearly a century of revolution and social turmoil, the aristocracy is still firmly entrenched in privilege, and the gulf between the salon and the servants’ hall is as wide as ever. But Max is handsome, quick to learn and confident of his abilities as a seducer of both men and women. Whether ladling soup into noble plates beneath crystal chandeliers, or reading biographies of the great generals in his squalid footman’s dormitory, he is planning his strategy. He, Max, is the man of the future – ruthless, above morality and sentimental attachments. Yet, when, after a couple of false starts, he at last acquires his patron, he finds himself ambushed by instinctive longings-for friendship, for affection-that threaten his grand plan. ‘Be true to yourself…’ the saying goes. But to which self? And what is ‘truth’?
The Second Footman is a historical drama set in 19 Century France and written by Jasper Barry. What makes it different is that it features a forbidden love story between Max an ambitious footman and his lover the privileged Marquis de Mirenant. Though a gay love story, set amongst the rich opulence of the French aristocracy and the lives of a servant class, it is also about ambition and self acceptance.
I loved the rich historical detail and the strong emphasis placed on character development and story. I’m aware some might find it a slow read, but personally for me the pace reflected the journey both characters take. I was very impressed that Jasper Barry allowed the story to breathe, allowing the characters of both men to be teased out slowly. It is a delicious feeling of indulgence to read a book that run its course, without the need for contrived plot devices to speed the narrative along.
I thought the characterisation was superb. Both Max and Mirenant were fascinating to spend time with and easy to both love and dislike. Max is mercurial, in that he changes throughout the story, frustrated with his position within society and at the same time confused about if he craves true love or is the contrived seducer of patrons he can exploit. Mirenant is a man of his period and position; he is both understandable and yet can leave you feeling like you want to shake him up.
This book, unlike many LGBT + novels is about the relationship between these two men, their feelings and motivations as they negotiate their relationship and the social divide between life above and below stairs. I felt refreshing to focus on them, especially on Max as he tried to discover who he really is, trickster or a venerable young man looking for love. Jasper Barry weaves this into the magnificent back drop of France and sumptuous historical detail.
Why would I recommend this book to other readers? Because it is a wonderful read. You become absorbed by the period detail and the fascinating characters.
About the author
Jasper Barry graduated from Cambridge with a degree in English and has worked in advertising, then in journalism. Jasper lives in London with too many books and three obstreperous cats.