Review Content Warning: minor spoilers, mentions of sexuality, mentions of sugar daddy and sugar baby relationships
Short Story Content Warning: strong language, scenes of a sexual nature, nude imagery, sugar baby and sugar daddy relationships, drinking, objectification
Lemons. A bitter mind, a bitter heart, and a smell of bitter lemons are all that’s left in the end.
In Douglas Stuart’s short story “The Englishman,” David, the young Scottish narrator, works under the facade of a houseboy during the summer for an older, affluent English banker named William. For outsiders looking into William’s lofty abode it appears that David merely fulfills the menial duties of a houseboy, but he actually participates in what we’d call in modern terms a sugar baby and sugar daddy relationship with William. This story entails an impressively raw and explicit depiction of David’s queer sexuality through the unconventional means of a financially and sexually beneficial relationship. For David, who comes from a rural hometown, traveling to bustling nineties London becomes a gateway to not only fill his pockets with money but also to explore his dampened sexuality.
Successful sugar baby and sugar daddy relationships oftentimes are based on mutual understanding of each other’s financial, sexual, or platonic desires. For example, a sugar baby can receive money from a sugar daddy in exchange for their friendship or sexual favors. However, within this dynamic there must also be an agreement or exchange of power; sugar daddies typically assume the dominant, superior position, whereas sugar babies take on the inferior and subservient position. Unlike the glamorized and often successful portrayals of sugar baby and sugar daddy relationships in most media, it’s interesting to see how Stuart gives us a different take—one that neither romanticizes nor downplays David and William’s summer fling, focusing on the realistic and sometimes unpleasant aspects of power dynamics.
William asserts his financial and sexual dominance over David by not only giving him money to spend on luxurious items, but also by inciting sexual activity with David. You might think that David would jump at the opportunity to take on the submissive role as the sugar baby so he can spend some older man’s money while also exploring his sexuality, but it’s more complicated than that. He battles an anxiety of becoming William’s sexual property that keeps him from splurging financially and sexually, a sign that he has yet to fully submit to William.
It’s also intriguing to see how Stuart conveys David’s deliberations—being William’s sexual property versus indulging in his own sexual desires—through lemon metaphors. Stuart molds these metaphors into representations of David’s bitter rejection to William’s sexual advances and proprietary domination. The prevalence of lemons is quite profound as they are strewn across the entirety of the story; they especially appear during William and David’s intimate moments where David can distinctly smell the scent of lemons on William’s wrists. The lemons’ pungency also extends to us, the readers, provoking us to smell and taste the bitterness of David’s aversion.
David and William’s differing desires and the lack of fulfillment for both sides leaves us with an unfinished, bad taste in our mouth in the end—one that lingers after we’ve finished reading. And unfortunately, for those who expect a happy ending—or a bit of sweetness—it won’t happen in this story. The absence of a conventional happy ending can dissatisfy the general reader, but Stuart invites us to revel within these realistic and quite discomforting feelings through David’s perspective. It is within this discomfort and fear of the unknown that we can attempt to understand how David feels in his conflicted position. If you’re looking for a story that rides on sour intent with a provocative ambience, Stuart’s definitely got you covered with “The Englishman.”
Douglas Stuart is a Scottish – American author. His debut novel, Shuggie Bain, is published by Grove Atlantic in the US and Picador in the UK. It is to be translated into eleven languages. He wrote Shuggie Bain over a ten year period and is currently at work on his second novel, Loch Awe. His short stories, Found Wanting, and The Englishman, were published in The New Yorker magazine. His essay, Poverty, Anxiety, and Gender in Scottish Working-Class Literature was published by Lit Hub. Born in Glasgow, Scotland, he has an MA from the Royal College of Art in London and since 2000 he has lived and worked in New York City.
The Englishman can be read online here.