Was the author of Peter Pan
a pedophile? There's been a great deal of speculation on the subject in academic circles, much of it inspired by J.M. Barrie's unusually close relationship to his adopted son Michael Llewelyn Davies, who died of an apparent suicide in 1921. It's also a question that troubles Manny Masters, the narrator in the fourth novel by Toronto writer Sky Gilbert. Intricately constructed and curiously moving, An English Gentleman
is both a satire of academics obsessed with the sexual proclivities of dead famous people, and a portrait of a lonely man who relates very deeply to the controversial bond between Barrie and his doomed favourite son.
Masters is a Manhattan high school teacher who has a distaste "for everything which calls itself 'gay,'" despite being perfectly open about his own sexual preference (and celibacy). His patrician contempt extends to the lifestyle of his friend Leslie Sexton, a scholar whose enthusiasms include explicit Mapplethorpe photos and the private life of J.M. Barrie. After Sexton dies, Masters inherits a trove of never-before-published letters between Barrie and Davies. Touching and often exquisitely written, the letters, which are Gilbert's invention, are evidence of the deep love between Barrie and his ward, though it's ambiguous whether this love was the kind that dared not speak its name. Masters reprints them here alongside his comments, included because of his fears that the letters will be misinterpreted. As he writes, "they reflect back what we offer to them."
An unusually careful writer, Gilbert convincingly replicates the archaic prose style of Barrie and Davies' correspondence. But of course, An English Gentleman is less about the orientation of Peter Pan's creator than the fraught, repressed emotional life of the novel's narrator. Though the parallels between the events in the letters and Masters's own affairs are clear even to the narrator, what interests the author more is delineating the many different kinds of love that exist--carnal, Platonic, paternal--and portraying what can happen when one kind is mistaken for another. Masters is right to regard the letters as a mirror and he is pained by what he sees. --Jason Anderson
From the Publisher
"Among his innumerable contributions to literature, drama and theory, is Sky Gilbert's refusal to rest - he constantly shifts shapes, stakes new ground, and in changing, changes us. With An English Gentleman, another critical departure in his work, as always, Gilbert never falters in his astonishing and courageous desire to "enquire further"; to rattle and astonish, with unparalleled dexterity and grace." Lynn Crosbie
"With An English Gentleman Sky Gilbert has written a brilliantly researched and compulsively readable hybrid of literary mystery and smirking modern gay satire that never fails to entertain, provoke and amuse." Brad Fraser