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The Scandal of the Seasonby Sophie Gee
Synopses & Reviews
London, 1711. As the rich, young offspring of the city's most fashionable families þll their days with masquerade balls and clandestine court-ships, Arabella Fermor and Robert, Lord Petre, lead the pursuit of pleasure. Beautiful and vain, Arabella is a clever coquette with a large circle of beaus. Lord Petre, seventh Baron of Ingatestone, is a man-about-town with his choice of mistresses. Drawn together by an overpowering attraction, the two begin an illicit affair.
Alexander Pope, sickly and nearly penniless, is peripheral by birth, yet his uncommon wit and ambition gain him unlikely entrance into high society. Once there, privy to every nuance and drama, he is a ruthless observer. He longs for the success that will cement his place in society; all he needs is one poem grand enough to make his reputation.
As the forbidden passion between Arabella and Lord Petre deepens, an intrigue of a darker nature threatens to overtake them. Fortunes change and reputations — even lives — are imperiled. In the aftermath, Pope discovers the idea for a daring poem that will catapult him to fame and fortune.
"'Hunchbacked satirist poet Alexander Pope finds inspiration in the foibles of 18th-century London's young, rich and arrogant in Gee's shrewd debut, an erudite period piece filled with outrageous flirtation, social maneuvering and contests of wit. The low-born Pope is permitted entry to London's upper echelons after some of his poems gain a gilded readership, and his literary ambitions and adventures in the city with childhood friends Martha and Teresa Blount are offset by the passionate but clandestine romance between the beautiful Arabella Fermor (who happens to be related to the Blounts), and the haughty Lord Petre, whose involvement in a plot to assassinate the queen lands him in a tight spot. The stories intersect when Pope immortalizes the lovers' high-class intrigue in a scalding poem. The novel is sprinkled with literary cameos and jokes English lit majors will appreciate, while crackling verbal one-upmanship and crude double entendres should keep the hoi polloi turning pages. The main disappointment is that Pope's much talked about poems never appear in full. But that's a small blemish, and Gee's take on the Paris Hilton — like figures who pranced through London 300 years ago manages to be simultaneously tabloid bawdy and academy proper.' Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)" Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"After its title, interest in 'The Rape of the Lock' falls off dramatically. The 794-line poem that took London by storm in the early 18th century and established Alexander Pope's reputation now rarely appears outside of college English courses and is probably rarely read inside of them. Whether they realize it or not, most people know a few of his phrases — 'Hope springs eternal,' 'A little learning... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) is a dangerous thing' — but poor Pope hasn't aged as well as William Shakespeare, who wrote 100 years earlier, or Jane Austen, who wrote 100 years later. Part of the challenge stems from his frequent allusions to contemporary figures who have no resonance for modern readers. (Cracks about James Moore Smythe won't bring down the house the way they used to.) And then there's the difficulty of adapting satiric verse to modern forms of entertainment. It's almost impossible to picture Keira Knightley in the movie version of 'An Essay on Criticism.' But Sophie Gee's first novel, which imagines the events that led up to 'The Rape of the Lock,' is so charming and witty that a revival of Alexander Pope doesn't sound so outlandish after all. An English professor at Princeton, Gee probably chuckles all through those classical references that make Pope's heroic couplets baffling to the modern reader, and if you know the poem well, you'll catch lines laced throughout her story. But if not, don't let that keep you away. In her own speculative treatment, Gee is determined to bring us along for the fun. The result is a thoroughly enjoyable submersion in early 18th-century London, when the wittiest writers feasted on the folly of aristocrats. Despite the fame of Pope's epic satire, not much is known about the silly crisis at the center of 'The Rape of the Lock.' Dashing Lord Petre apparently snipped some hair from a celebrated beauty named Arabella Fermor (aka Belinda), and that incident caused a row between their prominent Catholic families. At the time, Pope claimed that he had been encouraged by a friend 'to write a poem to make a jest of it, and laugh them together again.' Gee has written a novel consistent with that simple explanation, but in a marvelous feat of historical invention, she places English literature's most famous bad hair day at the center of her own plot involving cutthroat social machinations, Jacobite rebellion and even murder. The story opens in 1711, just before the events of the 'ravish'd Hair' that will inspire the brilliant young poet. Alexander is 23, already tasting some success with an earlier poem, but still living under the heavy hand of his protective parents. They have vivid memories of the abuse Roman Catholics suffered at the hands of Protestants; among other humiliations, in 1700, they were forced to move at least 10 miles away from London. Promising to be careful, Alexander finally gets permission to visit his publisher in the capital, where he also meets Jonathan Swift, John Gay, Richard Steele and Mary Pierrepont in scenes that will remind you just how much literary brilliance was packed into this place and time. Here, over the next few weeks, Gee's story plays out in spectacularly drawn, absurdly lavish masquerade parties, dining rooms and operas. Alexander makes a rather unconventional hero, but he's a deeply sympathetic one in this kinder, gentler characterization of a man who regularly skewered and slew his enemies in print. Stooped by tuberculosis of the spine, he has no marriage prospects, despite his intense affections. Without money or position, he attends the antics of London's upper class only as a friend of a friend. This conspiracy of physical, social and economic handicaps renders him somewhat passive in the drama that unfolds, but his keen powers of observation make him alive to the tensions all around. The main story involves Alexander's good friends and neighbors, Teresa and Martha Blount, young women who are visiting their stylish cousin Arabella in London. Martha, practical and modest, understands that this is a world they can only visit. But Teresa, with 'her boundless capacity for misguided optimism,' quickly gets caught up in the splendor of London's upper crust and imagines that she might compete in their great marriage game. There's a brutal stabbing at the center of 'The Scandal of the Season,' and elements of a dangerous plot to restore James III run thinly behind the story, but frankly the extent to which you'll enjoy this novel depends on how amused you are by arch social satire and the comedy of manners. As Pope wrote, this is a world in which 'At ev'ry word a reputation dies. ... / And all your honour in a whisper lost!' Obsessed with their precarious positions in society, these privileged people spend every moment calculating their advantages in the complicated marriage market on which their fortunes will rise or fall. 'Marry the person they want you to, and seek your pleasure elsewhere,' a cynical young woman instructs Lord Petre. 'It is an excellent system, in successful operation for hundreds of years.' 'But suppose,' he asks, 'that I wish to take my pleasures from marriage?' 'Then you must expect a very much less pleasurable existence than you are presently used to.' Aside from this crisp repartee, Gee describes some particularly hilarious trysts (good advice: avoid sex in a swan costume), and she thoroughly understands 'the habits, the small nuances of flirtation.' In many ways, the mean girls of the early 18th century were no different from those who rule today's high school halls. 'The defining trait of all successful girls,' she writes, 'seemed to be their refusal to show the faintest surprise or pleasure in their surroundings.' They have perfected 'the mirthless laugh, the world-weary smile, the disdainful air.' To every slump-shouldered geek who ever had to watch the glitterati at the prom, Gee offers a delicious cup of revenge. Pope promised that 'charms strike the sight, but merit wins the soul,' and 'The Scandal of the Season' offers both charms and merit, an extravagant costume drama infused with the poet's incisive wit and moral insight. Ron Charles is a senior editor of The Washington Post Book World. He can be reached at charlesr(at symbol)washpost.com." Reviewed by Luz LazoTina McElroy AnsaMary HollingsworthRon Charles, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"A seduction reminiscent of Dangerous Liaisons, with the crackling historical mystery of An Instance of the Fingerpost. The Scandal of the Season captures the breezy poetic romance of Shakespeare in Love, recast to star Alexander Pope." Ian Caldwell, author ofThe Rule of Four
"With The Scandal of the Season, Sophie Gee gives us that rarest of pleasures: a tale at once intelligent and frothy, richly edifying and compulsively readable. Combining her eye for details with her flair for narrative suspense, Gee recreates the glamour, intrigue and treachery of Alexander Pope's London: a captivating world that I was sad to leave when I reached the book's final page." Caroline Weber, author of Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution
"Sophie Gee's dazzling, sophisticated novel is a clever re-imagining of Alexander Pope's famous poem and a wildly entertaining tale in its own right. The romance and adventure of The Scandal of the Season will seduce readers from the first page." Amanda Foreman, author of Georgiana: Duchess of Devonshire
"With passion and flair, The Scandal of the Season animates an intriguing period of literary history, fleshed out in fluid, intricate, and seductive writing. Every reader will enjoy the wit and subtlety in the novel's dangerous, delicate balance of eighteenth-century customs and transgressions. What a first impression! Sophie Gee's debut novel signals her unique expertise and a great career ahead." Matthew Pearl, author of The Dante Club and The Poe Shadow
"A reader unfamiliar with The Rape of the Lock will leave this work without a more holistic sense of the richness of the original, and, by extension, a key motivation for telling this story. But while this might hold less 18th-century passion and intrigue than the original poem, it is still an enjoyable tale." Charlotte Observer
"Occasionally, the overabundance of historical detail intrudes, slowing the pace and distancing the reader from the characters with references to their actual existence as historical personages....Nevertheless, this work is highly recommended." Library Journal
"Gee writes with scholarly confidence, underpinning the racy intrigue of her account with a real understanding of the characters and their world." New Yorker
About the Author
Sophie Gee is an assistant professor in the Department of English at Princeton. Born in Australia, she graduated from the University of Sydney and received her Ph.D. in English from Harvard. She was recently named a John E. Annan Bicentennial Preceptor, the highest distinction that can be given to a member of Princeton's junior faculty.
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