All Men of Genius by Lev AC Rosen
All Men of Genius by Lev AC Rosen takes Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest and Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night and, um, “twins” them with the steampunk genre to offer up a mostly entertaining tale of dual identities, proto-feminism, the art of invention, and the complexities of love. It’s light-hearted good fun and generally succeeds.
If you know the above plays, the plot and the names will be mostly familiar, though they’ve obviously been tweaked to varying amounts: Viola from Twelfth Night becomes Violet here, the perambulator from Wilde’s plot is a bit unique, and the “Duke” is actually the headmaster of Illyria College, famed for its geniuses, none of which have been women as they are prohibited from applying. But faster than you can say “costume change,” we’re quickly thrust into the beginning stages of Violet’s plot to enter Illyria as her brother Ashton. Their father is conveniently in America for the year and so the two decamp to their townhouse in London, where Ashton will enjoy the privacy to engage in his personal pleasures while Violet proves herself to be just as smart and capable as the other Illyrian students.
She’s joined at Illyria by their best friend Jack, who’ll help her learn the ways of acting “manly,” something her brother — an “invert” in the book’s language — would have a hard time doing. In short order, Violet’s “simple” plan to carry off her disguise until the end of the year, when she’ll reveal herself at the school’s grand annual fair, runs into a horde of complications involving confused identities, misplaced affections, various blackmail schemes, a secret society, and the dark past history of the college itself. Soon Violet is falling in love with Duke Ernest (but can’t tell him because she’s “Ashton”); the Duke is falling in love with Violet (but not “Ashton-Violet”, instead he’s falling for Violet-Violet, Ashton’s sister), Jack is falling in love with the Duke’s young ward Cecily, Cecily is falling in love with Ashton-Violet, Cecily’s governess Miriam is in love with Toby (one of the students) but is being blackmailed by Volio (another student) who is also in love with Cecily, Fiona (the actress hired to play Violet’s city maid who also has a hand in the distribution of the newly invented vibrator — don’t ask) is falling in love with Drew (yet another student), and the real Ashton (pretending to be Ashton-Violet’s same-named cousin) is falling in love with the carriage driver Antony, though they have to keep it secret.
Whew. If the above sounds like a comic farce, well, that’s because it is a comic farce. Though of course, these plots always have their serious moments as the pain of pretending to be someone you’re not, or loving someone whom you can’t tell, or loving someone you’re not supposed to love, etc. all eventually comes to the fore. Not to mention the awkwardness of the inevitable big reveal at the end.
Rosen handles most these characters quite well, lending many of them a sense of individuality and fullness of character rather than taking the easy stock role way out. Especially the female characters. Violet is obviously front and center and her determination to make her way into the halls of the college isn’t simply a farce plot point to win a bet or rebut a sneering sexist insult; it’s because of her clear love for science, her drive to have an outlet for her obvious genius, and her desire to improve the lot of women like her. Her feelings are mirrored by Cecily, who is herself a scientist, one whose intellectual ability is constantly overlooked in favor of her beauty. (The willingness of “Ashton” to engage her on an intellectual level is the big reason she falls for “him.”) Miriam, a widowed Jewess who has lived in various parts of the world and who prizes her independence, is another strong character. Even the minor female characters, such as Fiona or Violet’s housemaid Mrs. Wilkes are given shades of complexity despite the small amount of text they have. This is especially true for the Duke’s cigar-smoking, brandy-swilling, card-sharking godmother Ada (Lady Byron), who steals every scene she’s in.
The gender issue exploration isn’t all one-sided either. Though Violet thought giving up the femininity she often chafed at and despised would be easy, she finds much to her surprise that she actually bemoans its loss at times. And her brother, she realizes, is even more tightly bound by Victorian society’s conservatism than she is, thanks to his homosexuality.
The male characters don’t fare quite so well in the depth department, partially because we don’t see anywhere near as much of them, partially because we spend less time in their heads, and partially because they’re generally less complex as individuals. Jack is the smitten young man, Ashton the Oscar-Wilde type rogue wit, Toby the noble blood with the heart of gold, and so on. There’s an attempt to deepen the Duke’s character beyond his love for Violet. He has some daddy issues (his father is dead), he’s a scientist who hasn’t done much science (due to his father’s great shadow) but is now picking it up again thanks to Ashton-Violet’s inspiration. He’s finally exploring the darker parts of the college, both literally (the abandoned basements) and figuratively (its connections to a secret society), and he’s working on a propulsion system that can send a ship into outer space (the love metaphor is clear). But most of those feel a bit pinned on.
The plot is obviously familiar; Rosen makes no bones about where it comes from as the obvious lifting of names, places, plot points, and even quotes makes clear. He’s playing in that vein, and so it’s hard to complain about those structural components that are part and parcel of the game: coincidences, moments of implausibility, etc. That said, there were a few basic plot points that yanked me out of the story here and there, such as the ease with which Violet’s group of students stumbles upon hidden areas of the College (while the Duke can’t find them despite having lived there much of his life and spending several hours each night for weeks actively searching for them) or the almost cavalier fashion in which Violet and Cecily come up with two separate inventions that would basically revolutionize modern industry. I’m sure we’re not meant to take these sorts of moments too seriously; I just wish the gap between that intent and actuality weren’t so large.
The “action” part of the plot in general is the novel’s weakest portion — the completion of Violet’s student project, a villain creating dangerous automatons, a blackmail scheme. It all sort of lumbers to a mostly predictable close and the less time spent discussing it or reading it is really to the better. Rosen is clearly much more interested in the inner lives of these characters than the outer trappings of an action-oriented plot narrative, and the reader will be too. All Men of Genius is a light, funny, sometimes bawdy, brisk novel with lots of bright, witty characters acting out familiar stories in playful, respectful fashion, all while stopping now and then to delve into more serious issues of sexuality, gender, and human ingenuity. If one ignores the outer plot with its automatons and less-than-scary villains, and focuses on the characters and their relationships, it makes for a highly entertaining read. Recommended.