In the tradition of Edith Wharton, Richard Mason observes the wealthy and those who aspire to be like them in The History of a Pleasure Seeker. The novel moves from Amsterdam to New York and South Africa at the beginning of the twentieth century, and the upstairs/downstairs machinations provide excellent relief for those yearning for the return of Downton Abbey. But beware, Mason’s erotic descriptions are not for the prudish. At times, you will think you are reading a book that deserves a bodice-ripping cover instead of the staid back view of a young gentleman.
Piet Barol has yearned for a life of wealth with all its accompanying privileges, and his dead French mother has prepared him well with lessons on manners and music. With his first job, as tutor to young Egbert at the family mansion of a wealthy Dutch hotelier, Piet hopes to finally use his good looks and acquired charm to finesse a better life for himself. Mason uses Piet’s position as the tutor as the link between the upstairs and downstairs; he takes his meals and attends church with the family, while sharing bath water and camaraderie with the help.
Piet’s young pupil, Egbert, suffers from OCD and agoraphobia – the description of the boy’s infliction is as humorous as it is devastating. Charged with curing the boy, Piet ignores his mission until one of the mannered sisters of the house challenges his boasts of horsemanship, tricking him into a painful ride. His angry response which almost costs him his job, turns out to be the beginning of the cure.
Piet also enjoys amorous attention from the lady of the house, who repeatedly requests his sexual prowess, as her relief from her husband’s sexual indifference toward her – brought on by his secret religious pact to cease all intercourse after the birth of a son. Maarten Vermeulen-Sickerts, the master of the house, has his own reasons for appreciating Piet…
“But as he looked as the young man who was now his tutor, who asked such intelligent questions and whose manners were commendably amiable and discreet, he began to feel optimistic about his son’s chances… and he felt a twinge of relief that responsibility for Egbert’s developing masculinity was no longer his alone.”
Although this sounds more soap opera than literary, Mason connects the plot to the undercurrent of differences between the classes. The historical perspective has World War I approaching and the New York banks failing, and Mason’s dialogue and descriptions transport the reader to the Belle Époque era,
When the possible discovery of Piet’s scandalous behavior with the lady of the house threatens Piet’s standing, he sails for South Africa and a new adventure begins on the long trip. He pays for steerage and yet enjoys some first class perks, thanks to the former footman who shared his bath water at the mansion and is now a waiter on the voyage. En route, Piet experiences his first true love with an actress singing in the ship’s opera, and his first sexual encounter with a man. All ends well, with Piet’s future looking promising once again.
Although Piet is clearly an opportunist, I couldn’t help cheering for him. Each time he loses everything and must start anew, Mason fortifies his character’s resolve and on he goes. The story starts slowly but as Piet’s fate evolves, the characters gets into a good rhythm (pardon the pun).