Date Read: 12.17.08
Book From: Personal collection
English poet Alexander Pope achieved his fame and success when in 1712 he published his mock-epic poem, “The Rape of the Lock,” satirizing the public disgrace of the renowned beauty Arabella Fermor. This novel follows Pope’s rise to fame, as he departs his country home to travel to the city for a season. As Pope struggles to find material for a new poem, and to cope with the hypocrisy and cruelty of London’s high society, the haughty but meagerly dowered Arabella encounters the equally attractive and clever Lord Petre. Amid the stirrings of a new Jacobite rebellion (the conspiracy to return the Catholic James VII to the throne), Arabella soon undertakes a clandestine affair with Lord Petre – an affair that will become the talk of London, and Pope’s making, by the end of the season.
I was actually able to see Sophie Gee speak about this book and the research that went into its making, and found her a very intelligent, engaging speaker, so I had this quite high on my reading priority list. Plus, 18th-century bedroom/social intrigues have been a pet subject of mine ever since I fell in love with Choderlos de Laclos’ Les Liaisons Dangereuses. Unfortunately, Gee appears to be a pretty terrible novelist. Most of her book is graceless and entirely deficit in subtlety and real character development – the only area in which she demonstrates any deftness is the sometimes witty, cutting dialogue. Erotic scenes occasionally offer a break from the plodding narration, but are executed with a mix of irritating coyness and heavy-handed, charmlessly vulgar metaphors. (Imagine the most obvious sexual innuendo possible involving swords, hilts, and sheaths. Got it? Good. You have now succeeded in equalling every sex scene in the book.)
The saving grace of The Scandal of the Season is that it’s based on real people and real events, and ones in which Gee is clearly an expert, such that the weight of their true personal histories and characters give substance to an otherwise poorly-constructed novel. As such, the only reasons I kept reading this were that 1. I bought it (damn), and 2. I really wanted to see what would happen to the characters. The end is very bittersweet and truly fascinating historically, but Gee effectively robs it of most of its emotional heft. Boo.