REVIEW: A Gentleman Never Keeps Score by Cat Sebastian
Content warning: discussion of child sexual abuse
Dear Cat Sebastian,
I have the first book in your Seducing the Sedgwicks series, It Takes Two to Tumble, on my TBR but haven’t managed to read it yet. A Gentleman Never Keeps Score works well as a standalone however.
Hartley Sedgwick is one of the eldest of the Sedgwick siblings and it is apparent early on that he felt a great deal of responsibility for them as they were all growing up. Their father was scattered and erratic; there were days of abundance and days of scarcity in their childhood and one could never predict what the day would bring. Hartley decided he would ensure they would all never have to go hungry again. Hartley’s godfather was Sir Humphrey Easterbrook. Humphrey was not a good man. In exchange for a too-young Hartley providing sexual services to him, Humphrey provided funds for Hartley’s brothers. Hartley was 16. In the process of spending time with Humphrey, Hartley learned the art of being a “gentleman”. He learned how to dress elegantly and how to converse with the upper crust. And he learned to hate himself even though he was happy to help his brothers and didn’t ever blame them for what had been done to him. The book is not explicit about what went on between Hartley and Humphrey but even so, the subject matter may be triggering for some readers.
One of the things Humphrey liked was to have lewd paintings done, and he preferred the women to be of the desperate-for-money variety rather than willing sitters for portraits. One such painting is of a young Kate Bradley, a black woman, now a midwife, who is dating the brother of Sam Fox, publican. Kate has refused to marry Nick because she’s worried the painting of her would be revealed at some future point and cause embarrassment to him. Nick knows about the painting and isn’t worried, but it is a barrier to their wedded bliss and Sam wants to fix it.
Sam is a former boxer, now the owner-operator of The Bell, a pub near Fleet Street. He is very much a caretaker. He wants to fix things for people and with the people he cares about this need is even stronger. He undertakes to try and locate the painting and this puts him in proximity with Hartley. Because, there is a painting of a younger Hartley, too.
After Humphrey died, he left his Brook Street house to Hartley. It was the only unentailed property and the only property of value. The entailed property went to Humphrey’s son and heir, Martin, but Hartley got the house. He doesn’t quite know why. In any event, Hartley was living there relatively happily until information about his true relationship with Humphrey became well known amongst his peers. He was cut from society and has been living as a recluse, rarely leaving the house. Most of his servants have quit. In fact, fairly early in the book, his only remaining servant is Alf, a former prostitute Hartley had brought in from the streets. (There is no sexual relationship between Alf and Hartley; Hartley, it turns out, is a bit of a caretaker too.) Later, Alf brings a friend of his, Sadie, an unwed girl of “gentle birth” who had also turned to prostitution to support herself as she awaited the birth of her baby.
Over the course of the book, Hartley, Alf, Sadie, Sam, Nick and Kate form a family.
Initially, Hartley and Sam plan to work together to locate and destroy Humphrey’s lewd paintings. Hartley sees this as some direct action he can take which may make him feel better about everything. He can’t get any revenge on Humphrey, or Martin (who he blames for releasing the information which led to him being cut from society), but he feels it will be somehow cathartic. In some ways, the paintings are a McGuffin though.
Sam and Hartley are attracted to one another but Hartley does not like to be touched. He feels sexual attraction but has difficulty enjoying sex because it involves others touching him. He is clearly quite traumatised by what Humphrey did to him.
Sam is all about consent. He asks what is okay and what is not. He lets Hartley set the boundaries and always, always respects them. Their sexual relationship develops slowly, with Sam finding unexpected delight in restraining himself as Hartley pleasures him. They slowly inch toward more and more physical contact – touching hands, hugs, kisses. And non-sexual touch too – something else Humphrey robbed from Hartley.
Maybe because of Sam’s own history – his father was an enslaved African American man who joined the British Army during the American War of Independence and was subsequently invited to settle in England – Sam’s view of what happened to Hartley is perhaps similar to that of a modern (and sex positive) reader. Sam doesn’t have a problem with someone supporting themselves by selling their body for sex. He sold his body in a different way when he boxed. But he does object to coercion – whether that’s because of desperate financial straits or being too young to be said to be consenting or a more overt form of physical violence, Sam is not okay with it. He has a keen understanding of what consent and bodily autonomy actually mean. He helps Hartley see that what was done to him was terrible, that he was a victim of a depraved, evil man. This helps Hartley see himself as worthy of love and affection and, along with Sam’s respect for Hartley’s limits and his easy acquiescence to them, makes it possible for Hartley to get to a place of emotional and physical freedom with Sam.
The story struck me as full of various intersectionalities; class, gender, race, sexuality. The book explicitly notes that Sam has advantages over Hartley in some areas because he can “pass” as straight and because he is big and muscular whereas Hartley cannot and is not. As Alf so blithely puts it: “There are newborn babies who know about you, mate.” Sam has similar thoughts but is more politic about them.
It wasn’t that Hartley was exactly feminine, but there was something about the way he held himself, something about the tone of his voice, too, that wasn’t quite masculine either. Sam didn’t think it was anything Hartley was deliberately doing, so much as something inborn in him, just part of who he was. And his looks didn’t help; he wasn’t handsome so much as beautiful. Maybe that was why the gossip had ruined him: it was just so easy to believe that Hartley was that kind of man.
and that Hartley has advantages over Sam in others because he is wealthy and white. And of course, they both have a certain advantage over Kate and Sadie because they are men. It is particularly stark in relation to Sadie because of her status as an unwed mother.
Hartley pursed his lips. In the girl’s words he heard an echo of his own childhood: unpredictability of household arrangements, servants coming and going, children pressed into service as unpaid help. But if her family had a cook, however sporadically, they had certainly been well-to-do. She oughtn’t to be scrubbing floors and washing dishes.
This was what Will would call reactionary twaddle, but Hartley couldn’t quite rid himself of the notion that some people scrubbed floors and other people paid them to do so. Complicating matters was the fact that his own background placed him more comfortably in the former group than in the latter: his family hadn’t had servants or even a functional roof until his older brother was old enough to take things in hand.
The book discusses being black in Regency England and dealing with racial slurs and racism, the different kinds of freedom each character enjoys or can have. I don’t know enough about the subject matter to comment authoritatively on this. I am white, as are you. I’ll leave it for black readers to comment more fully on whether the representation is well done here. It felt well-researched and respectful but I’m no expert.
While Sam’s initial draw to Hartley was perhaps his vulnerability, the book does address Sam’s savior complex.
“He’s a man, not a stray animal,” Kate said, petting the dog on her lap. “You can’t just keep him because he doesn’t have anyone else.”
“That’s not what I’m doing,” Sam said.
“Then what are you doing?”
“I don’t rightly know, Kate,” he admitted. And that was the truth.
And I was convinced by the end that Sam loved Hartley for himself. And, Hartley helps and cares for Sam just as much, albeit in somewhat different ways. In the end, theirs is a relationship of equals.
The story is angsty and sweetly charming, with engaging characters who do not aspire to the ton – something which felt fresh to me what with all the dukes and earls abounding in Romancelandia – and I liked it very much.
“I care about you more than I know how to manage,” Hartley finally said, looking up at Sam with wet eyes. “More than our circumstances will allow.”
Sam’s voice rumbled. “I think you care about me just the right amount.”