Two wounded men discover true love and a found family in Victorian England
In the opulent courts of Victorian England, John Seales, Lord Therkenwell, is a man of wealth and privilege, expected to marry a woman of his own social standing and produce an heir. But when he meets dashing French diplomat Raoul Desjardins at a soirée arranged by a politically-connected gay couple, he finds himself inexplicably drawn to the man despite the risks of their forbidden love.
John and Raoul struggle to keep their feelings for each other hidden while becoming ensnared in a web of international intrigue that threatens to ruin their careers and endanger their lives. As they navigate the dangerous political landscape of the time, they must also confront their own demons and make a choice: follow the expectations of society or follow their hearts. Set against the backdrop of a tumultuous era, "The Lord and the Frenchman" is a passionate and romantic tale of love that knows no bounds.
What this book made clear to me is that, to engage a reader like me in a historical romance, you really need to dig into the history of the moment and weave that reality into the fictional narrative. Neil Plakcy does just that in this second of the Ormond Yard series.
Nominally, it’s a classic m/m romantic set-up of a dilettante aristocrat and a “normal” guy. But our young aristo here is John Seales, aka Lord Therkenwell, only son of a conservative Cornish earl. He’s not just a dilettante living off unearned wealth; he’s got a genuine social conscience, and is philosophically at odds with his crusty father, who is not only a hereditary peer, but also a modern-style industrialist who uses child labor in his factories. Young John spends his time writing polemical broadsides decrying the greed and selfishness of the ruling class, using the pseudonym “Janner.”
John cares about exploited workers and brutalized children – as much as he cares about the oppression of women by the men who control their lives. But John is a bit of a coward, to be honest. He won’t really engage his father publicly (or even privately) because, well, John is also “not the marrying kind.” He thinks his father suspects this truth, and fears losing his comfortable income. This is an important thread in the plot, although subtly played out.
The other important character is Raoul Desjardins, well-educated son of a vineyard worker from a small town near the French coast. He has moved up in the world, working in the French embassy in London, using his education to earn a living as a translator and low-level diplomat. Raoul meets John at a party hosted by Toby and Magnus – the couple at the center of the first book in this series.
To add to the complexity, this is a moment in British history (1872 or so) in which the powers in Europe have set their sights on the Dark Continent – Africa. Fifty years after Waterloo, France and England are at peace, but still culturally hostile, as both look to Africa as the future of their respective economies. Raoul and John get caught up in this sub-rosa conflict, and not only does it make the story interesting, it adds emotional and ethical considerations that remind a modern reader what a hot mess the world was.
Plakcy offers up John and Raoul as eyes through which we can see some unpleasant realities in a way that few writers other than Dickens ever dared in the period. He also deals very nicely with the rather frightening truth of being inclined toward one’s own sex in a world that had only recently dropped sodomy from the list of capital crimes.
Thomas Hardy would have made this a book where everybody dies at the end. Fortunately, Hardy is also dead, and we have Neil Plakcy to make us think about the past, without fearing too much for own emotional satisfaction.