Richard Mason’s “History of a Pleasure Seeker has landed at just the right time. Americans, thanks to PBS’ Downton Abbey, are now hip to the upstairs-downstairs issues faced by great European households at the dawn of the 20th century. The up-close mix of luxury, labor and longing — plus a country house’s-worth of burbling romance — are condensed into the handsome and ambitious Piet Barol.
Barol arrives in Amsterdam, in 1907, with a university degree and a cold past that he’s determined to leave behind. He’s got one shot: to be hired as an academic and musical tutor to Egbert, the son of wealthy financier Maarten Vermeulen-Sickerts, who conveniently has two attractive, eligible daughters. Interviewed privately by the financier’s wife, Jacobina, Barol is asked to show off his piano skills; after choosing Carmen, he “drenched his quarry in sweet, permissive magic.” All they exchange are significant glances — the Victorian era has only just ended — yet it’s enough to secure him the job.
I know, I know: It sounds like bodice-ripping folderol. I have zero patience for that kind of thing, but I found this book delicious. Sure, the setting and plot may be borrowed from a stack of paperback romances, but in Mason’s hands, the material is transformed.
Mason is better known in England, where his novel The Drowning People, published when he was just 19, was a sensation that cast him into the cultural firmament. Now, not yet 25, he’s on his fourth novel, and it’s as polished as the Vermeulen-Sickerts’ silver, a literary guilty pleasure.
As tutor, Barol finds a place between upstairs and down. He lodges under the eaves with two male servants, but he dines with the family and spends his leisure time with them. Proximity becomes, to him, like destiny: With his good looks and keen sense of style, he’s soon passing for a member of the upper class, never imagining anything different. When his position is threatened, which happens on more than one occasion, the realization that he has nothing, and nothing to return to, is almost too much to bear.
Barol has a friend in the footman, Didier Loubat, a handsome blond with an eagerness to help Barol settle in. They share their bathing allotment, hanging out together in the bathroom (with an erotic charge that comes and goes) and spending time in Loubat’s room, where they can eavesdrop on the Vermeulen-Sickerts daughters below.
The daughters demonstrate Mason’s ability to both employ and invert stereotypes. The younger sister, Constance, is blond and bubbly, a classic coquette. Louisa is taciturn and is absorbed in creating elegant, simple outfits that run counter to those of the day (think early Coco Chanel, who appears in the acknowledgments).
With opposing temperaments and style, they are set up to loathe each other; plus, Constance has had 18 marriage proposals to Louisa’s three. But “(t)his discrepancy made no difference to the girls’ friendship, which was devoted and tender,” Mason writes. “This was partly because Louisa discouraged all suitors, finding none to her taste, while her sister took satisfaction from quantity as well as quality.”
Barol patiently pursues the sisters’ affections, but not in the way that he had first imagined. He finds he simply wants to get in their good graces, which happens more easily with Constance. Louisa thinks he’s a showoff, a braggart, a dissimulator, and she’s not wrong. But underneath those things, he is also driven by hope; he’s a striver who relies on his looks and charm because that is all he has.
Halfway through the book, after successfully navigating through the subtle social traps Louisa has set to expose him, he is caught up by his own braggadocio. He said he adored riding, although he doesn’t know how: When set on a strong, difficult horse, he is bruised and humiliated. “I am not as rich as you and I don’t mind admitting it,” he says to her in a quiet fury, “I have not had so many advantages.”
This anger compels him to act rashly. Egbert, though smart and gifted, is also at the mercy of fearsome imagined forces and has not set foot outside of the house in years. Curing him of this ailment was to be Barol’s task, which he hasn’t worried about much. On this day, he puts the boy over his shoulder, marches him out of the house and deposits him on the walk outside. It is a terrible scene. Partly because we see how difficult a cure must be. We have read what is happening in Egbert’s head: He hears voices, obeys when they command certain actions, repetition and repentance (he takes only cold baths, sometimes several a day).
This is a serious problem — is it some combination of obsessive-compulsive disorder and schizophrenia? — but Barol knows only that the boy behaves strangely.
By frequently moving between the characters’ points of view, hopping from one to another as they talk or dance, Mason builds tension. We know what everyone wants, and we can see when those desires are set on a collision course.
Jacobina’s desires are the ones most perfectly met, by Barol, of course, in a series of sex scenes both passionate and cold. The upper and lower classes don’t really meet, even when one is stretched out on a chaise longue and the other has his head up her skirts.
Meanwhile, Maarten’s fortunes suddenly turn, and his efforts to keep up appearances and bank balances take their toll. He is convinced his good fortune has come from pleasing God, and to restore it, he prays ever more fervently. His conviction in a silent being that rules his destiny, although perfectly socially acceptable, is portrayed as not being much different from his son’s. In a nice parallel, the burden of grace and penance seems to shift between the two.
The boy, the sisters, the mother, the father — Barol has connected with each of them, but the spaces between them seem to be collapsing. Inevitably, his position at the house shakes loose. In the last 25 pages, he sets sail for South Africa (Mason’s own birthplace) on a ship whose passage he can’t afford. Forced to face life under his own means, he is out of place and bereft. Who knows what might have happened if he hadn’t run into his old friend Didier, now a footman at sea, who sneaks him into first class, a place where a man of Barol’s looks and charm can, with luck, find a way.
In some ways, Barol is just as Louisa sees him, untrustworthy and manipulative. But seen from another angle — from, say, downstairs — he is setting out to move beyond his station, using whatever skills are at hand. In this way, he may be like a typical 1907 Dutchman, but he seems awfully American.