I’ve been fortunate to read some good books recently, but The Second Footman stands out. With his elegant prose and depth of background knowledge, Jasper Barry has presented a novel that reminded this reader of some great 19th C writers. It was seductive from the very first page. Exploring questions of ethics and morality, the author presents a teasing central figure in the person of Max – the second footman of the title. Max, or Jean – or is he really Albert Fabien? – is a young man whose name, like his age and background, is never quite certain.
Max starts out with a grand plan – one that is never spelled out but is clearly dependent upon his ability to pass himself off as someone else. After one failure, he attracts the attention of M de Miramont, an aristocratic but innocent gentleman of considerable wealth. Miramont’s grand home in Paris and country estates are subtly described, while the development of the relationship between Max and M de Miramont makes compelling reading. Through a shared love of art and the Classics, each learns from the other, and the attraction grows.
Although the reader fears for him at Max’s mercy, Miramont’s innate goodness gradually changes the boy despite himself. But the biggest change of all is brought about by love.
If I was a little disappointed not to discover the whole truth about Max – or his grand plan – this was certainly offset by his development as a human being. From his friendship with Fabrice – another footman – to a kind of torture by kindness under Miramont’s hand, I felt for Max every step of the way. How strange, I thought, that change should come via the monstrous Lesage, Miramont’s secretary. But as Max turns from hatred to a hard-won understanding, I found myself smiling at his names for Lesage: ‘the Buzzard’, and ‘the old fowl’. ‘Fowl’ – such a delightful play on words – foul he was, and fool too. Yet even this wicked old man was conquered in the end.
With its twists and turns and characters that linger on in the mind, this novel, independently published, has been a delight to read and deserves all its glowing reviews. I shall certainly be looking out for the sequel to Max’s adventures, and his further development along life’s road.