Lovejoy’s debut historical novel offers insight into the lives of gay men in 18th-century England.
At the age of 16, Joe Chapman finds himself penniless and alone in 1770s London. His father and mother are both deceased, leaving him and his 11-year-old sister, Sarah, to fend for themselves. Authorities ship Sarah off to a parish workhouse while Joe is taken to the Little Eastcheap Free School for Unfortunate Boys, an unpleasant religious school. Among the residents is a tenderhearted student nicknamed “Chowder,” for whom Joe develops romantic feelings. A series of circumstances at the school, including the predatory actions of the school’s governor, Mr. Peevers, force Joe and Chowder to part ways. Luckily, Joe takes up an apprenticeship with a kindly bookdealer named Mr. Jackson. Lovejoy’s characters tend to be rather bland and underdeveloped, and this is most apparent with Jackson, an unfailing parental figure who helps Joe reunite with Chowder and offers lessons on how to conceal their love from a judgmental public. His and Joe’s exchanges tend to be extremely saccharine: “You are like a father to me, sir” Joe says at one point. “Only even better, in a way. I hope I may be permitted to tell you that I love you, sir.” Meanwhile, other characters, such as Chowder’s mistress, who lands Joe and Chowder in a dire situation with the law, come off as cartoonishly evil. Despite this, the novel has an appealing classic-adventure rhythm to it, with constant reminders of Joe and Chowder’s perilous situation. Lovejoy also shows skill at making Joe a sympathetic character throughout; for example, after witnessing a public hanging of a man who committed monstrous crimes, Joe says, in a crowd of bloodthirsty people, “I suppose he deserved it, but I wish I had not seen him struggle so.”
A well-researched, often charming bildungsroman sometimes hampered by underwritten characters.