Wanted, A Gentleman is new territory for one of my favorite authors, KJ Charles. I think it’s her first Georgian romance and it’s her first that I’ve read with a man of color in the lead role, though I believe her next release in February also has a character of color, a trend I’m encouraged to see in historical romance. In other ways, it’s utterly typical of her work, with an intricate plot, complex characters and beautiful and witty language in equal measure.
This is the story of Theodore Swann, who runs a personal ads newspaper, and Martin St. Vincent, a merchant and former slave. They come together when Martin’s former owner’s daughter is corresponding with a man via Theodore’s newspaper. Did you know there were Georgian personal ads? I didn’t. Theodore and Martin conspire together and eventually end up on a break-neck chase through the countryside to catch up with the eloping lovers. But what might have been a light-hearted romp through the countryside is given depth by Martin’s status as a freed slave and rather flexible morality.
While Theodore is primarily motivated by money (a circumstance which is eventually explained), Martin’s motivations for engaging in this chase are less clear at first. The family he is helping are the ones who raised him, gave him an education and then freed him. But this is no story of white saviors and their grateful former slave, thank goodness. Martin is religious and a good man and he struggles with how he should feel about his relationship with the family that gave him a start, but also kept him enslaved. He also experiences racism on the road, which doesn’t surprise him, but angers Theodore. Your heart will hurt for Martin at every stage.
To be honest though, I was so caught up in Theodore’s struggles with his conscience and Martin’s experience as a black man in the Georgian countryside that I wanted a bit more intimacy for these two characters. Don’t get me wrong, the sexual tension is top-notch. But a late-breaking plot twist damages their emotional connection. As a result, the ending felt a bit rushed to me. These two had to overcome a serious gap in values and behavior that made their eventual reunion seem more like a happy for now than a happily ever after. I was less worried about the same sex and interracial aspects of their relationship than I was about whether the shift in Theo’s behavior would be permanent and whether Martin would be able to put up with him long-term.
There are also obvious parallels throughout the book to social and political events from Black Lives Matter to the recent xenophobic and racist votes in Britain and now the US. Martin’s pain and Theo’s outrage stand in for all of us who have been appalled at those who would attempt to curtail rights and protections for marginalized people. Martin is cast in a starring role in a trope that would more often feature the eloping couple, not the loyal family friend sent to prevent social disaster in a deliberate re-centering of the common narrative on a black man. It’s not subtle, nor should it be. One function of art is social criticism and this book has it in spades.
Wanted, A Gentleman is a supremely interesting book. I appreciated the realism injected into a period that more often features gamboling aristos. There is sex and confession and the exchanging of deep truths. I wanted a little more adoration between Martin and Theodore to get them through what will not be an easy journey. But Wanted, A Gentleman takes historical romance into exactly the kind of territory I like to see–using the connection between two people in love to help us prevent the mistakes of the past and give hope in dark days. It’s another work of immense importance by the incomparable Charles.
At one point during Wanted, A Gentleman, Theodore leaves Martin and goes inquiring about town as to the whereabouts of the eloping couple they’re following. When Theodore returns, Martin is sitting with a piece of parkin, a dark gingerbread-like cake common in the north of England. I’d made it once before after seeing a reference to it in The Little White Horse, a vintage children’s book I reviewed last year. It’s apparently commonly baked around the time of Guy Fawkes Night, which I did while I was in London.
In Wanted, A Gentleman, it’s more poignant. Martin’s former owners have a Caribbean sugar plantation, a place where Martin could have ended up if he hadn’t been a house slave instead. One of the hallmarks of parkin is the use of what the British call “black treacle” and what Americans call blackstrap molasses. It’s the final product of boiling sugar cane. In other words, Martin is literally looking down at one of the major products of the slave trade.
Since most Americans aren’t super familiar with the concept of parkin, I’ve translated a BBC recipe into American cups and ingredients, the one I used last year when I made parkin for the first time. Since I was still in London when I made this batch, I was able to use both British self-raising flour (which doesn’t contain salt like American self-rising flour) and the specified “medium oats” which are really like pinhead oats if you can find them (Whole Foods or another natural food store might have them) or regular grocery store old fashioned oats lightly processed in a food processor if you can’t. But don’t use quick oats. You’re looking for a bit of texture and the quick cooking ones will soften too quickly. The cakes were incredibly similar so I don’t think the authenticity suffered much under the application of American ingredients.
The other thing that differentiates parkin from the more familiar to Americans gingerbread is the fact that it is baked until a little bit hard, particularly at the edges, and then left to soften over the period of a few days to a week in a cake tin. Since most Americans don’t really have cake tins, I wrapped mine first in parchment and then in foil and left it on the counter for a week, which worked fine. It ends up being rather soft and sticky at the end of this period. You wouldn’t want to eat it straight out of the oven so if you’re going to bake this, give yourself a week for it to soften up before serving. It’s quite a rich and tasty treat for these cold winter days.
- 1/2 cup unsalted butter (one stick), melted and cooled plus more for greasing the pan
- 1/2 cup packed dark brown sugar
- 3 tablespoons blackstrap molasses
- 1/2 cup + 2 tablespoons golden syrup (at most grocery stores in the international section or online)
- 1 1/2 cups pinhead oats or old fashioned oats, processed in a food processor until coarsely ground
- 1 cup all-purpose flour
- 2 teaspoons baking powder
- 2 teaspoons ground ginger
- 1 teaspoon pumpkin pie spice
- 2 large eggs
- 1 tablespoon milk
- pinch salt
- Preheat oven to 285 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Butter and line an 8 by 8 inch square baking tin with parchment paper, then butter the paper.
- Combine all ingredients in a large bowl and mix thoroughly.
- Pour into the baked pan and bake for about an hour and a half. Center will be firm and edges will be hard.
- Allow to cool in the pan. When cool, wrap in parchment paper and wrap in foil or place in an air-tight container for four days to a week.
- Parkin is baked hard and then left to soften and moisten in a cake tin for the period of a few days to a week. This step cannot be skipped and is not accounted for in the time estimates provided above.
January 9, 2017