A Gentleman in Charleston and the Manner of His Death

Overview

Once deemed "the most powerful man in the South," Charleston newspaper editor Frank Dawson met his violent death in March 1889, at the hands of his neighbor, a disreputable doctor who was attempting to seduce the Dawson family governess. Drawn from events surrounding this infamous episode, the third novel from the Lillian Smith Award-winning William Baldwin pulls back the veil of a genteel society in a fabled southern city and exposes a dark visage of anger and secret pain that no amount of imposed manners could ...
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Overview

Once deemed "the most powerful man in the South," Charleston newspaper editor Frank Dawson met his violent death in March 1889, at the hands of his neighbor, a disreputable doctor who was attempting to seduce the Dawson family governess. Drawn from events surrounding this infamous episode, the third novel from the Lillian Smith Award-winning William Baldwin pulls back the veil of a genteel society in a fabled southern city and exposes a dark visage of anger and secret pain that no amount of imposed manners could restrain, and only love might eventually heal. With a southern storyteller’s passion for intricate emotional and physical details, Baldwin, through the fictional guise of Capt. David Lawton, chronicles editor Dawson’s fated end. Having survived three years of bloody Civil War combat and the decade of violent Reconstruction that followed, the liberal-minded Lawton is now an embattled newspaperman whose national importance is on the wane. Still, he remains a celebrated member of Charleston’s elite, while in private life moving amid a pantheon of proud and beautiful women-Sarah, his brilliant wife; Abbie, his sensual sister-in-law; Mary, the all-knowing prostitute; and Hélène, the discontented Swiss governess-each contributing to an unfolding drama of history-haunted turmoil. Though Lawton loathes the South’s cult of personal violence, by the customs of his era and place he is duty-bound to protect his household. Unable to act otherwise, Lawton meets his rival in a brutal physical contest, and in the aftermath, Sarah, Abbie, Mary, and Hélène must make peace with their own turbulent pasts. War, earthquake, political guile, adultery, illegitimacy, lust, and murder-all the devices of gothic romance-play a role in this tale closely based on the lives of Charlestonians who lived these events over a century ago.
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Editorial Reviews

Booklist
"Using language evocative of the period, the author carefully depicts a historical southern city where the past overshadows the present, and where personal codes of honor, designed to preserve decorum in polite society, ironically end up destroying it."
Publishers Weekly
Frank Dawson was a former Confederate Navy serviceman who, after the war, played a major role in Charleston, S.C.'s Reconstruction politics as a newspaper editor. Calling him David Lawton, novelist Baldwin (The Hard to Catch Mercy) fictionalizes the romantic tempest that brewed in Dawson's home beginning in the fall of 1888 and culminated in his March 1889 murder. The players include Lawton's deteriorating wife, Rebecca, who has never quite recovered from her brother's death in a duel, a miscarriage and the death of one of her children; Rebecca's sister, Abbe, who is as outgoing as Rebecca is retiring; the young Swiss governess, H l ne, who is getting attention from Lawton, and from Dr. David McCall, the also married next-door neighbor; and finally Mary, a prostitute who's got something on everyone in town. In a needless conceit, Baldwin creates a fictional author for the book and dates its composition to 1907; ineffective period prose makes the sex that's on everyone's minds somewhat comical, and the various flashbacks and shifts in voice overly complicated. Dawson's murder has everything to do with honor and the Old South, which Baldwin captures admirably, but structural inconsistencies and flaws make this novel (the first published by the press) a muddle. (Nov.) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
The real-life 1889 murder of Charleston newspaper editor Frank Dawson is the inspiration for Southern storyteller Baldwin's latest (Heaven Is a Beautiful Place, 2000, etc.). Three years after an earthquake flattened the city of Charleston, S.C., Dawson, a prominent liberal, was violently murdered by a local doctor, a man who'd been scheming to elope with the Dawsons' Swiss nanny. Baldwin lightly fictionalizes this tale, setting up a complicated web of intrigues and unfulfilled loves that center around the life of David Lawton and his literary wife, Rebecca. Also featured are Rebecca's sister Abbie; Abbie's estranged husband, Andre; the governess, Helene; and the mysterious figure of a psychic/prostitute alternately called Mary, Mrs. Patrick or Madame Chazzar. Midway through the tale, the narrator reveals himself to be the aspiring belletrist son of this mysterious woman, who may or may not also be Lawton's illegitimate son. The story has many twists, but the multiple leaps through time, which seem to layer and deepen the plot's various mysteries, add a slightly hollow mystique for which there is no eventual payback. This pleasantly embellished and prettily fringed historical tale moves forward without building much dramatic tension.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781570036026
  • Publisher: University of South Carolina Press
  • Publication date: 10/28/2005
  • Pages: 192
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.20 (h) x 0.80 (d)

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