The Great War altered the lives of so many. James Clarynton became a Colonel, but as the war cost a great many lives, he is convinced he received the rank due to a drastically decreased number of officers rather than his skills. In fact, his skills are markedly reduced since he lost one leg, one eye, and suffered a wrenched shoulder in a battle. Despite receiving the Victoria Cross for his service, Clarynton finds himself strangely relegated to the social circles containing those who, for one reason or another, could or would not serve. He enjoys sporadic company from his friends Claude and Diana, but most other company—and especially that of the romantic persuasion—comes with a hefty price tag. After all, who could tolerate a man broken by the war?
For Edmund Vaughan, the Armistice brings a wave of uncertainty. His past is colored by an event that would surely cast him right out of polite society with an enormous black mark on his name. On top of that, his mother’s family has disowned her and will have nothing to do with any of her issue. With his younger brother sickly and his mother penniless, Vaughan has no choice but to search for employment. The end of the war, however, means the streets are flooded with soldiers returned home and looking for work. When a connection at the Red Cross mentions secretarial work for an English gentleman living in Paris, Vaughan is not expecting much, but feels compelled to accept. Little did he realize his employer would offer obscenely generous wages—at the cost of getting to know Vaughan, and possibly his dark secrets as well.
Despite each man’s insecurities, each one finds himself drawn to the other—but what to do about it is an entirely different matter. To complicate things, the selfish ignorance of one of Clarynton’s former “lovers” threatens to ruin a budding friendship and Vaughan’s family suffers tremendously from their mean circumstances. A happy ending is not out of the question, but it will take tremendous acts of faith for Clarynton and Vaughan to overcome their insecurities.
This story was a sheer delight. First, the entire yarn unfolds as a series of alternating journal entries (with at least one letter thrown in). There is a give and take between the two perspectives that really helped me relish the unrequited love themes and the shame these two character bear. The prose itself can be quite charming as well. At one point, Clarynton takes it upon himself to write a letter to Vaughan using a typewriter. Clarynton, however, is not a typist and cannot figure out how to make capital letters. Reddaway therefore writes the entire chapter without a single capital.
Instead of blinding passion, we have a slow burn between our two MCs. What I think is interesting is how the heat does not revolve around “is he or isn’t he,” but rather “will he or won’t he.” Claryndon seems subtly smitten almost from the first time he meets Vaughan. While it’s understood Claryndon/Vaughan is the ship that shall sail, the careful wording in the first several journal entries by Vaughan left me wondering if Vaughan might be ashamed of his attraction to men. Reddaway balances the two narratives most often so that they fit together like a single flow of time; however, there are a few entries where we see Vaughan react pointedly to something Claryndon has done. These “exchanges” are the best examples, albeit sometimes obliquely so, of how and why Vaughan feels his desire is unrequited. For Claryndon, the feelings of unrequited love stem largely from Vaughan working hard to keep his dirty family secret from spilling out. While Vaughan’s secret does not offer as much situational bang as the actions of Claryndon’s former kept man, I liked how Claryndon takes it in stride with unassailable reasoning.
As much as I enjoyed the packaging of the story and the content (I’m a sucker for angst!), there were a few weak points for me. One was the sense that Claryndon and Vaughan are a bit “lopsided” in their on-page presentations. While we have great insights into Claryndon’s emotional vulnerabilities vis-a-vis Vaughan, there reverse is not as prominent. To reiterate, the Vaughan family secret seems to drive Vaughan’s actions more than whatever romantic feelings he has for Claryndon. Even when we finally understand Vaughan is beginning to fall for Claryndon, it feels like Reddaway tempers it with other elements in the book (sick relatives, old lovers). Also, surprisingly, the climax in the romance aspect of Vaughan/Claryndon ends rather without much of a bang. We observe Claryndon first resign himself to the idea that it is his own personal life that has driven Vaughan away, then we see Claryndon take one last desperate (for a gay man in 1919 anyway) action to get Vaughan back. Unfortunately, we do not get to see Vaughan’s personal reaction to Claryndon’s attempt to win Vaughan back; however agreeable the results are, I would have liked to have “been there” as Vaughan realizes exactly what Claryndon has done.
Whatever the shortcomings are, however, it did not stop me from enjoying the story as a whole. This is largely a sweet little get together. Despite being a period piece, there is little discussion of the realities of the time regarding men who love men. The supporting characters are truly in supporting roles, but I appreciated that they were not merely window dressing (i.e. they didn’t always simply crop up to fulfil some function in the plot). If you are looking for a sweet little get-together with a dash of drama and a happy ending, you’ll probably enjoy this story.