A Faustian bargain drives the narrative in Irwin’s novel, but the devil’s identity is ambiguous.
In this 18th-century treatise of manners and manipulation—think Fielding’s bawds and beds—Richard Fenwick has returned from a grand tour of Europe sponsored by his godfather, James Gilbert, wealthy owner of Fork Hill estate. Gilbert assumed care of Richard upon his parents’ deaths. He’d envied the elder Fenwick’s bonhomie, his willingness to embrace life. Gilbert’s own nature was circumscribed and full of unexpected consequences. Now he proposes an intellectual experiment. Gilbert wants to "taste, vicariously, the pleasure of a young rake," and so he offers Fenwick an allowance so that he might pursue all that he, Gilbert, had so feared: "the Passions: Vanity, Greed, Avarice, Rage, Lust...." Thus begins the moral exploration, steps sometimes chronicled via letters between London and Fork Hill, with Fenwick and Gilbert slowly stripping away pretension and pretext. Fenwick is by turns ambitious, hedonistic, lazy, blind to evil and brutal in manner despite perceiving himself of "amiable disposition—certainly neither callous nor cruel." Obviously, Gilbert is Machiavellian, manipulative not only of Fenwick, but also of those to whom he offers patronage, including a failed poet, a lackadaisical scientist and another landowner, a boor whose wife he inveigles Fenwick to seduce. Amid Irwin’s spot-on descriptions of 18th-century England’s squalor and splendor, the masquerades and dinner parties, this passion play mostly rests between the sheets where Lust lies. Fenwick reports to Gilbert as he beds a promising actress while simultaneously setting sights on Sarah, a childhood companion neglected during his sojourn. Sarah’s now married to a stolid diamond merchant whom Fenwick’s eager to cuckold. Irwin’s secondary characters also fascinate: Horn, more gentlemanly than his loutish tavern-hopping would have him appear; Crocker, grossly obese, rejecting fleshly pleasures for beauty and companionship; and Mrs. Jennings, Gilbert’s contemporary, playfully cynical and sardonic. At the end, "the ceaseless reciprocal traffic between the intellectual and animal self" ends in accidental death and a surprising choice.
A tale of morals, intriguingly told.