Book Review: Helpless
by M J Pearson
As all of London girds itself for the trial of Oscar Wilde on a charge of gross indecency, handsome young aristocrat Douglas Shrove finds himself discreetly and charmingly propositioned in a bookshop by the shop’s owner, Mark Goldcrest, who appreciates Douglas’ allusions to Ganymede and perhaps likes his non-verbal attributes as well (Douglas himself fails to see the appeal in his own looks, blandly summarizing that he had “the usual number of features”). Douglas is still grieving for a dead lover, but he agrees to dinner – and promptly finds himself drugged, naked, alone, and bewildered. The first thing he thinks is to stagger to the nearby home of a darkly handsome young artist he met earlier – he’s too far from his own home, he happens to recall the address of this artist, Warren Scott, and he’s desperate.
Warren moves in far more demi-monde circles than Douglas and recognizes at once that the young aristocrat was drugged, but Goldcrest denies it when confronted, and Douglas and Warren spend the main part of M. J. Pearson’s fast-paced and fascinating novel Helpless piecing together a case against Goldcrest, who they rapidly come to suspect has been systematically preying on the young Ganymedes of London for some time now. The novel’s sub-genre might tempt some potential readers to assume the worst, but that would be their loss: this is actually a sharply-drawn portrait of an unjust society – and two decent young men trying to make that world make sense.
Looming in the background of the novel, thought about and talked about by all its characters to one degree or another, is the courtroom confrontation between Oscar Wilde and the lawyers of the Marquess of Queensberry, in which Wilde was publicly and disastrously labelled a sodomite. Listening to a sordid bit of the trial itself, Douglas and Warren are acutely aware of the fact that they themselves are far more ‘guilty’ than Wilde, and their different-world exchanges are consistently the best thing in the book:
“I don’t understand it,” Warren said. “Wilde has friends. They should be lining up to pay for his defense, not allowing this to happen.”
“Only the best of friends will stand by him now.”
The artist glared at him, real grief in his dark eyes. “Is it so dreadful?” he asked. “To love a man?”
“It’s dreadful,” Douglas said flatly, “to take on a Marquess when you can’t win – and destroy yourself in the process.”
“You can’t make this a class struggle. Wilde moved in the highest circles.”
“He was allowed to.”
Warren laughed, a bitter sound. “In the end, though, he’s just the son of a doctor? An Irish one, at that.”
“It’s the way the world works, Warren …”
But even though Pearson grounds her story on firm and extensive research, she never forgets that she’s serving up drama as well; the prose in Helpless is lean and matter-of-fact, entirely free of the archness that afflicts so much gay fiction (and that’s an out-and-out plague on gay historical fiction), and only very infrequently purple. It reads like no other gay fiction currently being published in English – indeed, the strongest echoes while reading it come from that arch Victorian himself, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
There must be anachronisms in popular historical fiction such as this; Pearson is shrewd enough to know that she needs Douglas’ wealth and privilege to make a space where her story – of two young, non-neurotic men finding love with each other – can happen at all. Not all the endings in her novel are happy (“I will never so much as look sideways at another man in my life” says one miserable character at the novel’s close), but the main one is – bought and paid for out of the Douglas family coffers. We shouldn’t begrudge her this, but it’s worth keeping in mind during the course of a book about social oppression of gays.
The book’s arrestingly cheesy cover is by Sean Platter. It over-simplifies the gist of plot, quite merrily.