Dear reader, life is too short for crap books.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Behind the Rape of the Lock: The Scandal of the Season by Sophie Gee

The Scandal of the Season by Sophie Gee

One fatal stroke the sacred hair does sever
From the fair head, for ever, and for ever!

I was immediately struck by the clever premise of The Scandal of the Season, but wondered, really, how interesting was a book that fictionalized the events surrounding Alexander Pope's "The Rape of the Lock" going to be? Along with Jonathan Swift's "A Modest Proposal," Pope's mock epic is one of those works that sounds hilarious to high school students when it's explained in modern language. What they don't expect is that they're going to have to hack through some truly dense 18th century verbiage to get the jokes. Most give up, which is not to say that the hacking isn't worthwhile. There are always two or three kids in the class whose eyes light up when they get to Swift's sentence about baby ragout.

And Sophie Gee's novel is not only clever, it's absolutely delightful, peppered with witty banter, forbidden trysts, and Jacobite plots to murder the queen. The book begins with the young Pope traveling to London with the Blount sisters, partly to drum up some publicity for his latest poem and partly to woo the elder Blount, Teresa. She'll have nothing to do with him, though, and is holding out for a wealthier prospect, preferably one without a hunchback.

Though the Blounts have a good name, they're deeply in debt, and the girls have this season alone to snare mates before word of their financial ruin leaks out. Teresa relies on the friendship of her beautiful and well-connected cousin, Arabella Fermor; however, Arabella has lived in the city long enough to see Teresa for the grasping nobody she is.

And Arabella has other things on her mind, not least of which is the attention of Robert, Lord Petre, one of London's most eligible bachelors. Despite her good judgment, Arabella becomes Robert's lover and believes he'll marry her even though he's financially out of her league. And Robert isn't a total rake - he loves Arabella and believes he can convince his family to approve the union. Meanwhile, Pope watches the affair unfold at masquerades and garden parties, and uses its doomed end to compose his best-known work.

Gee's eye for historical detail is rich and precise, but it's her dialogue that sells the story. Characters live and die by their wit, which goes a long way towards explaining how a middle class Catholic with a hunchback could gain access to London's elite. And despite living in a superficial society where much is expressed in euphemism and pun, the relationships between the characters are surprisingly deep, and sometimes moving.

If you liked...: Les Liaisons Dangereuses by Choderlos de Laclos or the work of Jane Austen, this book is for you.

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