Money, guilt, lust, immortality and sin. Those words take on profound meaning in Irwin’s epistolary tour-de-force where murder and sex thrive in the bacchanalian halls of London’s aristocracy and the raunchy ale houses and scandalous back alleys of Southwark. While this novel isn’t for all tastes, there’s much pleasure to be found in the hedonistic pursuits of Richard Fenwick, a naïve young man placed in a test of wills by his aging godfather, who submits his libertine hero to a series of trials.
Unlike Fielding’s Tom Jones, a lower-class servant, Richard is a member of an established family, although his parents died leaving him ill-provided for. Returning to London from France, where he’s no longer “something of young country colt,” Richard has learned to make his way in the world as best he can. Curious by nature and blessed with good looks, Richard falls under the spell of his new benefactor, godfather Mr. Gilbert, whose generosity does much to improve Richard’s lot and widen his prospects.
Ensconced in his private estate of Fork Hill, the frail and elderly Mr. Gilbert has lived a narrow life and seeks to enjoy a tour of exotic places as seen through “younger eyes.” Dulled by his days and in need of “fresh life,” he locks his young ward into a strange game: amid the din and stench of London with its repellent and artificial social life, the older man asks Richard to sample everything the capital offers, especially its resulting pleasures oddities and extremities—and then convey to him the sense of it all through regular letters.
Richard is perversely pleased to once more be breathing the tawdry, smoky London air. His sudden reversal of fortune (combined with his feisty constitution and appetite) leads him to immerse himself in the life of the city and the hidden resorts frequented by some of “the lustier men of fashion.” Here Richard makes the acquaintance of Mr. Thomas Croker, whose inclining plumpness and quick intelligence influence many of Richard’s bawdy escapades and give voice to the battle between the flesh and spirit which comes to characterize much of Irwin’s story.
Written in the idiom of the eighteenth century, the novel has a rollicking, highly dramatic and sardonic style that gives us much insight into the personalities and foibles of Irwin’s characters. Because this is an epistolary novel, the series of letters span several months, principally between Richard and Gilbert but also Richard’s old friend and paramour Sarah Ogden, the most beautiful and exemplary of her sex. Although Richard still holds a flame for Sarah, she has recently married Mr. Ogden, a diamond merchant of mean fortune. Mr. Ogden’s ethics, especially with regard to his own wife, make him irredeemably “a dullard and clod”--at least in Richard’s eyes.
As the plot thickens, the letters of those concerned grow more agitated, each party determined to achieve preeminence and claim victory as Richard sets his sights on seducing lovely Sarah. Gently fading Gilbert wishes to taste vicariously more of the “fleshy pleasures” he has missed, presiding over Richard’s attempted seduction of Sarah as it rapidly becomes clear there’s a private and subversive immorality at play. Soon enough, Richard’s carefully laid plans backfire against a background of London’s decadent nightlife and Thomas Croker’s debauched masquerade ball.
He may be all polite manners and grace, but Richard seethes with disquiet toward his Machiavellian godfather. As they engage in a duel of wits, Richard realizes too late that Gilbert is more than up for the depraved challenge he has posed. Writing desperately to save himself, Richard also realizes too late that his ultimate loyalty is to Sarah, although everything he loves may be forfeit when he finds himself driven straight into the face of murder.