Tuesday 28 May 2013

Author Spotlight ~ Jasper Barry

I am delighted to introduce 



The Second Footman...
Matador (1 Feb 2013)

Jasper ~ welcome to Jaffareadstoo and thank you for sharing your thoughts about the writing of your debut book - The Second Footman.

Where did you get the inspiration for The Second Footman?

I love the complexity of the nineteenth-century novel and the way its characters can't escape the demands of a society that has rigid rules about class, money, morality and etiquette. There's usually a frustrated love affair and an element of mystery too. It's a long, highly textured, satisfying read. So I decided to write one, but with a contemporary twist.

The central love affair is between two men - Max, who at nineteen already has a chequered past and is keen to better his current lot as the duchesse de Claireville's second footman, and Armand, marquis de Miremont, who is struggling in middle-age to accept his newly awakened sexuality. This adds a further dimension to the challenge presented by strict social codes. To be true to their inclinations, Max and Armand must live their 'real' life within society, yet outside it.
I've also always been fascinated by the power-dynamics in relationships. In a conventional nineteenth-century novel where the love affair is between an upper-class man and a younger woman of lower social standing, the man, by virtue of his age, rank, wealth and gender, traditionally has the power (think Mr. Rochester) - will he marry her or won't he? But with Max and Armand, the situation is obviously rather different: as a man, Max doesn't have any 'virtue' to protect and he's not looking for commitment; he certainly hopes to use Armand to improve his social status, but by entirely different means. And, if it doesn't work out, well, youth is on his side, he can always leave. Max has the power. Or so he thinks.

What is it about your book that will pique the reader’s interest?

There's the mystery surrounding Max. Exactly what happened to him before he ended up in the orphan's dormitorium of a Normandy monastery? Who is The Other? And what is the fraud Max hopes to commit? But I hope the reader will be intrigued by both the two main characters. In another deviation from my nineteenth-century template, I don't do 'good' or 'bad' characters, because we're all more complex than that. So central to the novel is the idea that, unless you're a psychopath, it's actually just as difficult to be consistently ruthless as it is to be consistently virtuous.
I also hope the reader will be drawn in by 1880s' France. I set the novel in France rather than England because, while homosexuality was thoroughly disapproved of by French society, it was not a criminal offence in private between consenting adults (I wanted to avoid the threat of an Oscar-Wilde-type martyrdom hanging over my characters as that would have made for a very different novel). And I chose the 1880s because, in a welcome period of peace after a century of conflict, Paris is once again the most glamorous city in Europe and France is enjoying a flowering of creativity in the arts and fashion that will reach full bloom in the Belle Époque of the 1890s.
The novel unpeels various layers of this society. There's the world of Armand de Miremont and Catherine de Claireville: opulent society salons in aristocratic Parisian hôtel particuliers and indolent summer house parties in country châteaux, where the air is thick with back-biting and sexual intrigue. Then there's the world below stairs: the contrasting squalor of the footmen's dormitory, the rivalries, the rigid routine, the hierarchy that mimics the salons' strict order of precedence. There are glimpses of bohemian life when Max visits his best friend, the violinist Zhukovsky, on his Sundays off. And beneath society's well-regulated surface, like a deeper current in a river, there's an alternative society, shadowy but with rules of its own - a gay world that celebrates its existence at Max's other Sunday haunt, The Green Monkey. 

How long did it take you to write The Second Footman

Eight years. I'm a very slow writer and although I believed at the start I knew enough from other projects not to need detailed research, you never know enough - I even had to relearn Latin, so I could translate the Catullus poems that feature in the novel. And then life got in the way too - sick partner, sick me, the illness and death of my mother. The result is that one novel has grown into a trilogy taking the characters through to 1892. I'm working on the second novel now. A bit faster, I hope.

Do you have a special place to do your writing?

A narrow little room like an old-fashioned railway compartment. I sit with my back to a wall of research books, facing a set of framed costume designs by an old friend who's a theatre designer. There is a window, but the view isn't great, so there ought to be no distractions. But of course there's the terrible lure of the internet - ordering washing-machine descaler seems irresistibly exciting when you're stuck for the right word. And then, when I'm motoring at last, I look up and see three pairs of aggrieved eyes - hungry cats, mobbing my computer. If I don't pack up and serve dinner they throw pens, eat post-it notes and chew books until I do.

Are you inspired by any particular era, author or book?

I like the English nineteenth-century novel, particularly Trollope, whose characterisations seem to me psychologically acute. But nowadays I much prefer the French and Russian writers of the period. Beside them, the English novel, where evil is usually punished and good prevails, appears rather safe. Balzac was a revelation to me. The first novel of his I read was Père Goriot: by the end his bourgeois hero Rastignac has seen beneath the glitter of Parisian high society and he climbs a hill where he can look down bitterly on the city and reflect. If this were Dickens, Rastignac would have been taught to know his place and would return to his former existence, where he would find a nice wife and settle down the pleasures of ordinary middle-class life. But he does no such thing. He vows to take Paris society on at its own game. "It's war between us now," he declares. Dangerous. Open-ended. Exciting. You long for the sequel.

And finally a fun question....

If The Second Footman was optioned for a movie, who would you like to play Max and Armand?

Oh dear! You know, I really hate it when I adore a character in a novel and can see him in my mind's eye - and then Hollywood goes and casts some actor who is absolutely nothing like my vision. I do give quite detailed descriptions of Max and Armand, but I'd like readers to be free to do what I do when I'm reading and fill in the gaps with their own imaginations. So forgive me but I'm going to leave the casting up to them.

About the Author

twitter: Jasper Barry @JasperBarry2

My Review of The  Second Footman

Set against the glamorous background of nineteenth century France, and with the capriciousness of the Parisian elite opened up to scrutiny, the story of The Second Footman flutters between the grand salons of the aristocracy, and the squalid intimacy of shared servant accommodation. Nineteen year old Max, is the second footman of Catherine, duchesse de Claireville whose predilection for handsome male servants is widely acknowledged. With no assets other than his charismatic personality, Max devises a plan to help him escape his life of servitude. When he encounters the naive and wealthy Armand de Miremont at the duchesse de Claireville’s summer retreat, Max realises that he has a talent to seduce, and as the first quiver of desire strikes, Armand is powerless to resist.

Whilst The Second Footman it is a substantial read, the plot never falters or loses focus. The writing is good, and the overall professional quality of the story is reminiscent at times of classic nineteenth century literature. I found that I was beguiled by both Max and Armand; their story of burgeoning homosexuality, with the hint of dark secrets, is expertly controlled within the boundaries of nineteenth century class structure. There is no doubt that the beautiful youth on the cover of the book is quite striking; his enigmatic gaze and grave composure captures not just the beauty of the man, but also highlights the captivating pull of the narrative.

This story of classic ambition, combined with the hedonistic arrogance of youth, and the frailty of hidden desire is perfectly presented. I have no hesitation in recommending The Second Footman as a fascinating and captivating read.

I originally reviewed The Second Footman for the Historical Novel Society  in March 2013.

My thanks to Historical Novel Society  for my review copy of this book.

Jasper - thank you so much for giving such insightful answers to our questions. 

Jaffa and I will be following your career with great interest.



  1. what an interesting interview - an author to watch I think!

    1. Hi Helen ~ I agree that this author is one to watch out for - can't wait for the next story !

  2. I have just finished The Second Footman..and stayed up until 3am to do so, such was my reluctance to stop reading! A truly enjoyable fascinating read.

    1. Thanks for taking the time to comment Donna. So glad to hear that you enjoyed The Second Footman..

  3. Picked book up at Stansted airport. I was drawn by the historical element of the book. Not my usual reading material but very absorbing. Please Jasper get a move on I can't wait till 2029 for completion.

  4. Please strangle your cats so that you are no longer distracted by them and get on with part 2. We are all waiting!

    1. Part two would be most welcome but not at the expense of the cats :)


Thanks for taking the time to comment - Jaffareadstoo appreciates your interest.