What is even worse than my butler playing Salome in the middle of my study is that my sister is watching the whole thing with an arch look on her face, and tapping her imperious little foot impatiently.The Gentleman
A good friend lent me a book a little while back that I had never heard of before, but which has become a favorite. It was The Gentleman by Forrest Leo. It tells the story of a Victorian poet who suddenly believes that he has accidentally sold his wife to the Devil and, in a panick, attempts to find a way to rescue her. He ends up with a variety of interesting characters variously helping or watching him as he tries desperately to discover how to get to Hell and retrieve his wife. Among these characters is his younger sister, Lizzie.
Lizzie Savage is sixteen in the book and when we first meet her, she has just returned to her brother’s house after having been kicked out of a prestigious boarding school for dallying with the headmaster’s son. You see, Lizzie tends to do whatever she believes will let her learn something new and interesting. Since nobody will tell her about sex, she decides to experiment a bit and learn for herself. She attempts to learn about art with a similar approach later – by simply starting to paint (with the poor butler as her nude model).
She may have a very tenuous grasp (if it can even be considered that) of propriety, but Lizzie wants to know everything and sees no reason not to learn it however possible. She asks lots of questions and has a great curiosity that leads her to try things nobody else seems to think she should. She is so strong-willed and independant, however, that nobody seems reasonably able to stop her once she sets off to do something (a fact which frequently exasperates her brother).
I love Lizzie’s curiosity and her refusal to wait for permission or instruction when she can clearly just as well learn what she wants herself, regardless of the rules of society on doing such things. I love that she doesn’t much care what people think of her, but definitely has confidence and respect for herself. I really admire those qualities in her. That absolute confidence that any question is worth asking and answering, and that she has the right to do both, is amazingly appealing and admirable. Maybe her sense of morality needs a little work, but nobody’s perfect, right?
I’m not sure how better to explain Lizzie and her brother’s relationship than to share this short bit of conversation from early in the book where she has just learned that her brother married for money without telling her while she was away at school.
“Nellie,” she says sternly, “I really think there were better financial alternatives than marriage.”
“Believe me, Lizzie, I wracked my brains and at the end of the day the only alternative was selling you into prostitution, which would never have worked.”
“That isn’t funny, nor is it – Why wouldn’t it have worked?”
“No one would have bought you.”
Her unnerving calm is shattered. “PEOPLE WOULD HAVE BOUGHT ME!”
“No,” I say, “I don’t think so.”– The Gentleman