Truth in advertising is well served in this Cleis Press anthology of thirteen short stories edited by Rob Rosen — the title pretty much tells you exactly what you’re going to get: Men of the Manor: Erotic Encounters Between Upstairs Lords & Downstairs Lads.
Told from both servant’s and master’s points of view, these stories set in the early twentieth century are primarily an erotic romp through a period that was never exactly as described, but close enough to make them light-hearted fun, and somehow vaguely prophetic of the leveling of class structure brought about by two world wars and the Great Depression.
In fact, the range of treatment in addressing the power differential between upstairs lords and downstairs lads became much more interesting to this reader than the sex scenes, since sex in its graphic detail hasn’t changed all that much for men like us in thousands of years, while notions of equality, power and privilege have undergone drastic evolution.
There’s good variety in the anthology’s story settings, and most of the writing is good, too. Occasionally a plot seemed too thin or loose for the action, but then these are erotic stories first and foremost. While post-Victorian decorum in language occasionally strayed into the jungle of purple prose, it wasn’t often. Still, in one story squeezing a nipple became “pinching the prominent protuberance” which shattered the spell of the story for me.
Some of the story memes were familiar — and essential for the theme of the anthology. The first story, Dale Chase’s The Maze, featured the classic aristocratic man stuck in a loveless marriage, discovering the virile gifts of his insatiable, rough-mannered gardener.
Other stories were surprisingly cold and cynical, and I was intrigued that all but one of these were told from the servant’s point of view. Some characters were merely opportunistic or manipulative, as in Brent Archer’s Seducing the Footman or Salome Wilde’s Booting. The most chilling, however, was Michael Bracken’s tale of a butler’s calculated theft and blackmail, Mutable Memories.
Of the romantic stories, three stood out as exceptional. Xavier Axelson’s short piece Finsloe was the tenderest and sweetest romance. In the back matter, Felice Picano’s piece Folly’s Ditch is described as extracted from a longer work, which makes sense. Although it certainly stands on its own as a story, it implies more untold than told — an almost dream-like tale of a young actor turned prostitute recounting to his unseen and unnamed benefactor how he came to be working in the whorehouse where they met, and from which the benefactor has rescued him. Rob Rosen’s Bohemian Rhapsody features an artist, a magical, romantically wild character who sweeps into an aristocratic household, paints a portrait and disappears, leaving the household changed forever.
Other entries offered unapologetically improbable romps. Of these, Michael Roberts’ Manor Games and J.L. Merrow’s kinky Brass Rags were especially inventive and fun.
So if you enjoy erotica set in Edwardian England and the gilded age in the US, you’ll enjoy this collection of stories about upstairs lords and downstairs lads — and how they negotiate the differences in their, well, positions.
Reviewed by Lloyd A. Meeker