“Book Review: The Sins of Jack Branson”
Reviewed by Tucker Lieberman
A sensitive, enterprising Irishman in 1880s London turns his sexuality into a profession in this evocative historical drama
The Sins of Jack Branson is the debut novel of screenwriter David Schulze. It’s a fictionalization of an 1889 scandal in London in which Prince Albert Victor and other aristocrats were accused of patronizing a brothel of male sex workers. Between its anecdotes of affairs, its slow revelations of more enduring longings, and its vivid courtroom scene, it is magnificently character-driven from beginning to end.
The majority of the action is told by an unnamed narrator who reflects on his own life. He is born in Ireland in 1857, where a man who has sex with other men can still be sentenced to hang. By the time he is old enough to discover his sexuality, penalties begin with merely two years’ hard labor or, depending on the evidence, life in prison.
This relaxation of the British law has not made his own parents any more liberal. When they learn he is sexually involved with a man, they cut him off. At age 24, he moves to London and helps to open a brothel for men who seek to pay for sex with “Beautiful Ones,” as the young male entrepreneurs brazenly advertise their services in the paper.
The tale up to this point is both real (within the novel’s world) and fiction (a story within a story). The narrator has the personal custom of recording the personal details of his clients, including names and identifying details, in a diary. Eventually, he lightly masks and publishes it as fiction. The first-person story we have been reading is his manuscript; it is his fictionalized but overall true story. Its publication sparks the conflict in the later part of the book, as one client harbors a special resentment for having been outed: he is running for political office.
There is a lot to appreciate in The Sins of Jack Branson. It gives an empathetic (if rose-tinted) perspective on the life of a sex worker in 1880s London. This man loves the brothel he runs. It’s not only his hard-earned profession, but also a home and community. He has the good fortune not to face violence or coercion from his clients. The risk of disease seems nonexistent. His main goals seem to be to avoid the police, find love, and reconcile with his family.
The character enjoys sex in and of itself, and there are a number of sex scenes that read like erotica. This does not imply that he is incapable of relationships. He has a long-term interest in one man in particular. A “chosen family” is often important for those who have been disowned, and that is the kind of warm picture that is painted here of his community. Still, he wrestles with his grief at losing his biological family, the pain of which is somewhat soothed by his pride at having built a community for himself.
The story also reveals a bit of the diversity within gay male communities. From the start, the narrator is drawn to the scent of “brandy and cigars, a natural musk for gentlemen,” despite a more effeminate stereotype of gay men that surfaces later. While he understands his own identity and attractions as essentially masculine, not all characters do. He meets a pair of crossdressing men who are known, at least behind closed doors, as Mary and Louise, who are always bantering in a campy way. He comes to like and befriend them.
The author’s postscript acknowledges that he has modernized his language. This could generate mixed reactions. Some readers are sensitive to anachronisms, and, to them, a 20th-century word like “press conference” might be jarring. Even the word “homosexual,” which is frequently used in this novel, might be recognized as a bit futuristic for 1880s English. (After all, this was the era of Walt Whitman’s poems on “the manly love of comrades.”) Other readers might benefit from this modernization, as terms like “homosexual” that are recognizable to us today probably contribute to the story feeling as relatable and reading as smoothly as it does. The Sins of Jack Branson is driven primarily by its engaging, compelling characters. Its period details, while relevant to the story, are not its sole focus.
If you pick up this book, you are nearly getting two novels in one: the anonymous narrative that begins the story, which is the novel-inside-the-novel, and then the struggle of the character who published his own diary as fiction. In him, you will meet a provocative but tender man who does the best he can to survive in a city where it is forbidden for him to love.
Genre: LGBTQ+ Historical Fiction
Print Length: 426 pages
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