Review: Duke of Orleans by John Simpson

Twenty year old Richard Giles is living on the streets of London in the year 1660, scrounging for food and shelter the best he is able after the closure of his place of employment and death of his mother.

After being given shelter for the night by a kindly old man Richard is back on the streets when an unfortunate incident brings him into contact with a man who may just change the direction of his life, for the better.

Review by T J Pennington

John Simpson’s The Duke of Orleans reads, in part, like a history book…and not in a good way. The descriptions of the time and place are stilted, sounding as if they were chucks of an essay by a very earnest student rather than observations by an omniscient narrator or by the main character. For example:

Many turned to crime, becoming pickpockets and petty thieves, transforming the streets into a morass of corruption.

For those caught plying their trade, it was a stint in Newgate Prison, which far surpassed the definition of cruel in any decent person’s mind. Women and their children were housed along with common debtors in cellblocks considered to be austere at best, unless you had the coin. Then you could buy your way into the section of the prison containing upscale furnishings and comforts, while enlarging the pockets of the jailors whose tender mercies you were subjected too.(sic)

All of which is more or less accurate (“austere” is a remarkably charitable description of the Newgate cells)…but all of which is irrelevant, at that point. We know nothing about the the main character yet save his name, so we don’t care for him. And we don’t wonder if Newgate Prison will be a threat somewhat later. (It isn’t.)

We learn more about the main character on the next page. Unfortunately, the author has not mastered the art of showing rather than telling. We are told that he won’t steal unless he’s on the verge of starving; we aren’t shown him having an opportunity to steal and resisting it despite the temptation. We’re told that he sold off everything that he inherited long ago, though we aren’t told why. And finally we read a sentence that pushes us away from the time, the place and the main character: In the jargon of the day, Richard was a pauper.”

We learn that Richard Giles is the world’s most passive prostitute. His method of attracting business? Standing in front of restaurants and looking attractive and pathetic so that rich men will pity him, feed him and take him home for sex. This doesn’t strike me as a viable way of attracting multitudes of customers, especially if one is homeless, penniless and starving—when was the last time that you went out to dinner and invited a street person to dine with you?–but apparently it works for Richard.

Well, a lord strolls by as lords are wont to do (he’s called “my lord” three or four times, so I presumed that he was intended to be nobility), sees Richard looking hungry and sad, and immediately invites him to partake of “some hot food and cool drink.” We get no sense that Lord X is looking for a bit of fun or that Richard is offering any. The man who owns the pub that they enter behaves believably, shouting at Richard to leave, as he doesn’t want paupers and potential thieves hanging about his pub. Of course, he is immediately smacked down by the lord for daring to suggest that he doesn’t have the money to pay and for criticizing the lord’s guest.

The lord, as it turns out, is not a lord. He is Henry Walker, merchant. He asks Richard why he’s on the streets and Richard recites his true biography. If the narrative had not told us that this was his real background, I would have thought that he had memorized a false story and was reeling it out for a customer. When questioned further about the job he lost, he slips from the formal recitation into 21st-century slang:“I kinda kept the records of what was made and who bought what we sold.”

Sadly, Simpson alternates between stiffly formal and anachronistic language and behavior throughout the book. The barmaid sing-songs, “May I take your order?” much as a waitress in today’s family restaurant would. Richard’s problem with finding employment is one that today’s homeless face; employers require an address for their records. I think that would have been less of a problem in the days when people could be hired on for X amount of hours and paid at the end of the day.

There’s also the problem of how much money was worth back then. Richard states that he came to London after he lost his job with only six shillings in his pocket. That doesn’t sound like much to us. But in 1660, £0 6s 0d would have the same worth of 2008’s £33.70 (using the retail price index) or £459.00 (using the average earnings of the time). Economist Jan Luiten van Zanden says that the income of an unskilled laborer on a construction site in Oxford, Cambridge, Dover or Canterbury was 12 pence (or one shilling) a week (worth £5.61 using the 2008 retail price index and £76.50 using average earnings); in London, the wage for an unskilled laborer was 20 pence (or one shilling eightpence) per week (£9.35 using the 2008 retail price index and £128.00 using average earnings).

So when Richard got to London, he was ridiculously well off. He had a small fortune in his pocket. And we haven’t seen any reason yet why he couldn’t live on that.

Walker takes Richard home. Not because he’s interested in men or boys—he states that openly—but because he “had a rough childhood and young adulthood.” I’m not sure what that has to do with anything, as Richard is neither a child nor an adolescent but a grown man. The housekeeper is only too happy to scrub and mend Richard’s clothes after a long day of work, just as Walker himself is only too happy to do a footman’s job and build the fire in the guest room that Richard is occupying.

The next day, though, Richard has to leave; Walker has relatives coming from York, and well, you know how it is. Richard, effusively grateful for the one night’s sleep, the bath and the newly mended, clean clothes, goes out onto London’s streets again. And that’s it. That’s the last we see of Walker until the end of the story, when Richard pops up again to tell him how well he’s doing.

Now that Richard is cleaner and more rested than he’s been in weeks, does he try to go get a day job somewhere, as would have been possible in his time? Does he tell a proprietor of a store or an inn that he’ll work for food? Does he go to a carriage house or livery stable and offer to help muck it out so that he’ll have somewhere to sleep for the night? Oh, no. He heads to Parliament to beg. And “[h]e hoped his clothes didn’t look too good for people to believe he was a pauper.”

When he gets to Parliament, he is “run off continuously by the local constabulary and finally threatened with arrest.” I’m not sure how that managed to happen, since Henry Fielding didn’t found the Bow Street Runners, an unofficial police force that worked for the Bow Street Magistrate’s office, until 1749 and Sir Robert Peel didn’t establish the Metropolitan Police Force in London—the first modern police force–until 1829.

Anyway, Richard gets rousted from one of the front doors of Parliament, so he starts wandering about in front of the more fashionable shops and gets splashed by a carriage drawing up to the curb. Richard charges up to the coachman and starts berating him. This is the point at which a “youngish” French noble (the eponymous Duc d’Orléans, who would have been twenty at the time of this story, and not, as the character later says, twenty-six) gets out of the carriage himself and goes over to talk to Richard. And he apologizes for the driver splashing Richard.

Philippe I, Duc d’Orléans

Let me repeat that. An aristocrat who is the younger son of King Louis XIII and his consort, Anne of Austria, the grandson of Philip III of Spain, the younger brother of King Louis XIV, and the Duke of Anjou and Duke of Orléans in his own right gets out of his carriage and apologizes to the poorly dressed commoner who is now soaking wet, covered in mud and shit, and screaming at his coachman.

Philippe (for that was the name of the Duke of Orléans) offers to make it up to Richard by buying him an entire set (read: suit) of new clothes. He also introduces himself as “Philippe, Duke of Orléans, Duke of Valois, Duke of Chartres and Lord of Montargis,” which is jumping the gun a bit; he was styling himself as Duke of Orléans as of February 2, 1660, but Louis didn’t grant his brother that title or any of the others until May 10, 1661.

Richard protests that he lacks “employ, money, or a place to rest each night” and that he’s “a non-person”—a word that didn’t exist in the seventeenth century—and, with that, tries to leave. The duke shouts at him not to do so…and Richard is instantly attacked by servants and shopkeepers who think that he’s trying to rob the duke. The duke explains that no, he wasn’t being robbed, he just wants to talk to Richard. Oh, and make him three sets of clothes. One in full evening dress.

While Richard is taking a bath in a washtub in one of the back rooms of this fancy tailor shop, the Duke of Orléans asks Richard what kind of work he’s looking for. When Richard says he can write and figure, Philippe hires him as a valet and personal secretary, despite the fact that Richard can neither read nor write French and says so. His appraising gaze as he looks at Richard’s naked soapy body says exactly why he’s hiring the man. He also notes that despite deprivation—and Philippe thinks to himself that he’s seen such deprivation before on the battlefield, though the first war that Philippe seems to have been in was the War of Devolution in 1667—despite it, Richard is “fairly well muscled.” He also talks to Richard about “the stunning beauty of your ass.”

Once the clothes are taken care of, Philippe explains to Richard why he’s in England—his brother and his advisors sent him to England to keep him from starting a civil war to grab the throne. This would be an interesting Dumaseque plot. Unfortunately, that’s all there is to it. The story contains no further information about a conspiracy to overthrow Louis or an upcoming civil war. Which is a pity. It would have made a compelling alternate universe story.

After a long section in which Philippe takes Richard to his ambassadorial residence, gives Richard all sorts of instructions about his duties and proper etiquette, and has a couple of meals with Richard (because servants always sat down and ate with their employers), Philippe finally asks Richard if he prefers men. Upon Richard admitting that he does, the Duke says that he prefers men as well…and would Richard “care to join [him] in bed tonight where we both can remain warmer?”

Of course Richard says yes, and of course Philippe assures him that nothing will happen that night…while at the same time asking Richard if he will be his “student in love.” You would expect that night to feature a passionate sex scene. But instead, Philippe curls up next to Richard and falls asleep. They don’t have sex until a week later—over the protests of Richard, who tells the duke, “I am not very experienced in the ways of physical love and I might disappoint you.” Um…Richard? Weren’t you working as a streetwalker earlier, sexually obliging men who would feed you?

After a couple of fairly standard sex scenes, Philippe tells Richard that he loves him and wants him to come back to France with him…as his lover. And, after a conversation with Charles II, in which Charles wants an Anglo-French alliance against Spain—never mind that an Anglo-French alliance already defeated Spain in the Franco-Spanish War in 1658 and England profited from that alliance in the Treaty of the Pyrenees in 1659—Philippe suggests sending Richard to Louis XIV as a messenger.

Of course, Philippe says, a mere commoner can’t meet with his brother. So Charles agrees to make Richard the Earl of Dunleavy. The title doesn’t bring Richard any land, but it does give him what Charles calls “a token”–one hundred pounds a year. According to Measuring Worth, that’s about £11,200.00 in 2008 pounds, using the retail price index, or £153,000.00 in 2008 pounds, using average earnings. (I wouldn’t mind getting that kind of “small token” each year myself.)

And, naturally, as the story concludes, it is implied that Richard and Philippe are going to live together happily for the rest of their days. Unfortunately, the only way that works is if you ignore not only Philippe’s marriage in November 1660 to Henrietta of England (called Minette, and mother of four of his children) and his later marriage to Elisabeth Charlotte of the Palatinate (called Liselotte, and mother of three more), but also the existence of the man who was allegedly the love of Philippe’s life, Philippe de Lorraine-Armagnac, called the Chevalier de Lorraine, whom Philippe met in 1668. The Chevalier was described as “fait comme on peint les anges”–“made as the angels are painted”–and remained with the Duc d’Orléans until the Duke’s death.

The story itself has problems. First, I must mention both the cover and the editing—which are not the author’s responsibility, but which do count, nevertheless. The cover is attractive, and looks as if it were modeled on the Running Press covers, but it is not even vaguely accurate; of the two men on the cover, the one on the left is dressed in what appears to be late-eighteenth to early nineteenth century garb, while the one on the right is clad in what looks like a black jacket and a white mock-turtleneck. Neither is wearing anything approaching seventeenth-century attire…or the long and elaborate curly wigs that were the hallmark of fashionable men’s hairstyles in the seventeenth century, either. And the editing is ill-done; there are many, many missing quotation marks, missing commas and commas inserted scattershot into the text. The errors were distracting and annoying; they kept pulling me out of the story.

As for the writing itself…well, as mentioned throughout this review, the story is very, very poorly researched; even the age of the bisexual Duc d’Orléans is wrong. The language is alternates between being stilted and being slangy and anachronistically modern. And the characters are not developed; we never get a sense of them as people with thoughts, likes, dislikes, hopes and fears. I’ve finished the book, but I don’t feel that I know Richard any better now than I did on the first page.

Finally—and this is linked to the lack of characterization–there is no overarching plot. The novella is, fundamentally, a series of anecdotes about a impoverished young man who is given everything that he could ever want because he is a wonderful, noble, humble and saintly person. We never see Richard being poor or unhappy or struggling or starving; we hear about it, but we don’t see him suffering. Richard, like many fairy tale heroes and heroines, is kind and courteous to the right mysterious old man and old woman (Henry Walker and the housekeeper Martha, respectively) and gets his heart’s desire. It is the Cinderella story with the wicked stepmother and wicked stepsisters left out.

And because there is no opponent, no antagonist, no threat to Richard, no conflict at all, and because Richard, who is the quintessential Passive Protagonist, never needs to accomplish any goals through his own efforts (and, indeed, never tries to do so), the story is not interesting. It’s a wish fulfillment fantasy—and while everyone on earth has daydreamed about getting wealth, power, the perfect job and the perfect lover, a daydream is not a fully developed story.

Because there are so many basic problems with the book, the most I can give it is one star.

Author’s website

Silver Publishing Amazon UK Amazon USA

3 Responses

  1. Well, I haven’t read the book, and on the basis of this review I’m not likely to, but if the review’s accurate it’s a truly appaling piece of drivel. Does it even merit one star? What astonishes me is that it got published! There I was thinking it’s extraordinarily difficult for an unknown author to get work published these days, and I’m occasionally given to bouts of despondency over the prospects of getting my own work out there, and this book gets published, trouncing all my pre-conceptions. So, forget the hard work polishing and polishing our work in the hope of making it good enough; let’s all write balderdash and submit it to Silver Publishing, and no doubt they’ll publish it for us!

    Sadly, the power of the review is somewhat tarnished because it could itself do with a quick once-over by an editor…!

  2. I’m…well, floored, particularly when I consider I’ve been beating myself up for the one anachronism discovered in “Lovers Knot” after publication Given the ubiquity of information on the internet (and if it’s on the internet IT MUST BE TRUE!), there’s no reason and no excuse for not being at least nominally accurate in facts. I cannot speak to the writing or anything else about the book, but research — basic research — is not difficult nowadays. Even Wikipedia would give more than enough information to get timelines right, without speaking to social conventions, etc.

    Wow.

    • “…there’s no reason and no excuse for not being at least nominally accurate in facts. I cannot speak to the writing or anything else about the book, but research — basic research — is not difficult nowadays.”

      I know. It floored me how much information was available about Philippe I, Duc d’Orléans, who was a fascinating man by all accounts. A historical novel about him and the men and women he had affairs with could be quite compelling, if written and researched well. Sadly, this is not such a book.

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