Monday, May 9, 2011

Review: The Decadent Mission of the Earl Lavender

The Wonderful Mission of Earl Lavender by John Davidson seems to be best known not for its actual text, but for the frontspiece by Aubrey Beardsley. Unfortunately, this has led many people to a somewhat unreasonable expectation as to just what it is that the book is actually about. I myself was rather horrified to go visit the Wikipedia page and, at the time, find the book "within the scope of WikiProject Pornography" and categorized under BDSM and British Erotic Novels. Now, BDSM and British Erotic Novels are all fine and dandy, but to describe Earl Lavender under such terms is like calling Forgetting Sarah Marshall a hardcore porno about pregnant vampires. There are precisely two scenes of whipping in Earl Lavender, both presented in a religious context, but for the sake of humor.

Perhaps with this backstory, it was wise to give the work a new title in this new edition as The Decadent Mission of the Earl Lavender
. The book itself is a comedy piece, and (maybe by Victorian standards) a wee bit raunchy but certainly not pornographic. Earl Lavender and his pal Lord Brumm are penniless, but are believers in Evolution and have faith that they will survive. Earl Lavender perceives himself to be the fittest of mankind and, thus, feels it is his duty to locate the fittest of women so he can mate with her. Now, it's never quite explicitly stated, but one gathers from the information gathered through the story, that Earl Lavender in fact has had what we would call nowadays a nervous breakdown -- on his wedding night, to a woman -- his cousin -- to whom he was apparently a bit reluctant to wed, he ran away and thus declared his new religion, mission and name. His wife, Maud, is chasing him; and also the fiancée of Lord Brumm, Mrs. Scamler, is on his respective tail. Mrs. Scamler was my favorite character in the book. She tends to speak in very long monologues that tell her amusing backstory. She met Brumm and decided at once that he was the kind of man she ought to marry, even though he didn't especially seem interested in her. She convinced him to allow her to dine with him in any event. One day he asked her, "You're not one of those women who cleans all the time?" This led to the discovery that his first wife was always cleaning and tidying, and it drove him insane. After her death, he set out particularly to marry a woman who would not be so; he located a writer, who was very untidy and seemed perfect for him. Alas, upon marriage, she too to straightening up and tending to her appearance. She ultimately died as well, but now Mrs. Scamler knows the key to Brumm's heart; she intentionally smears dirt around her house and bores holes in her clothing. Brumm is finally won, and will marry her provided she smears dirt on her face for the wedding.

Just why Brumm abandoned her was never quite adequately explained -- Scamler herself believes that he'd gotten word that she knew how to speak French, and that the thought of her knowing such a scandalous language frightened him away. Brumm himself claims to be a misogynist, and later a misanthropist altogether; though a whipping at the underground religious temple seems to help clear him of these follies. A happy ending is provided for all, though it is a bit forced and sudden (Earl Lavender needs more than a whipping to cure his mania, but a stern talking-to does the trick -- though how, I didn't quite understand. The arguments presented weren't all that clever in my view.)

In any event, the work is far from pornographic. Lavender's mission is decadent, but not erotic. The work itself has a character more akin to the works of Douglas Adams than any Lustful Turk type victoriana. Earl Lavender is worth reading -- but not for the frontspiece.

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