Synopses & Reviews
Set in late eighteenth-century England, Philippa Stockley's American debut gives us a wickedly delightful but deadly serious battle of the wills and the sexes. It begins with the arrival in London of the mysterious Mrs. Fox. On the run from a scandalous French past, she takes on a new identity, determined to rehabilitate herself. To do so she must pit her formidable skills for revenge against Earl Much, a British aristocrat with no less notorious a past and easily her match in sinfulness and intrigue. Between these two swirls a story featuring venal lords, wronged maidens, and reprobate clergymen, transporting readers from bawdy houses to country estates places where the pleasures of the flesh are both high comedy and serious business.
A Factory of Cunning takes readers to the world immortalized in Dangerous Liaisons. And, like Michel Faber's The Crimson Petal and the White, the vividly rendered setting and characters give the thrill of a fresh discovery.
"'Cunning' is an apt word for the plot of Stockley's (The Edge of Pleasure
) intriguing historical novel, set in 18th-century England; 'devilishly clever' would be even more appropriate. The truth about any character or event is never what one expects, despite arch foreshadowing, and the reader is unprepared for the shocking denouement, which carries echoes of Les Liaisons Dangereuses
and the Grand Guignol
. A beautiful 29-year-old Parisian aristocrat arrives in London in 1784, fleeing a scandal and the pursuit of a vengeful victim. On the surface, the penniless woman, who adopts the name Mrs. Fox, makes admirable efforts to establish herself in English society. Sharp-tongued and arrogant, she doesn't hide the fact that during a sojourn in Holland, she was the madam of a whorehouse, or that she is coolly manipulative, or that she is voracious for money. She meets her match in the mysterious Earl Much, a man who oozes malevolence and power. Their battle to the death involves a large cast of Dickensian characters, each one of whom hides his or her true identity. Narrated with wit and sexually provocative detail, the novel portrays London as a pit of licentiousness, amorality, greed and deceit. It's entertaining and suspenseful, and the most monstrous characters are those who wear the facade of moneyed respectability." Publishers Weekly
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"[R]eaders...are...rewarded with a compellingly complex tale of seduction, betrayal, and manipulation that holds their attention until the last surprising moment." Library Journal
"Polished, clever, and really quite shocking." Kirkus Reviews
"Readers will eagerly turn the pages of this epistolary novel, chortling at the dalliances and gasping at the machinations, anticipating the delicious moment when Mrs. Fox's house of cards collapses." Booklist
UK PRAISE FOR THE EDGE OF PLEASURE
"A glittering novel . . . Darkly beautiful."-THE SUNDAY TIMES
"Confident, assured and highly entertaining . . .A vividly sensual novel."-EVENING STANDARD
"There is much to enjoy in Stockley's sly, tart mix of sex, painting and mischance, confected with a naughty, sophisticated glitter." -DAIL Y MAIL
PRAISE FOR A FACTORY OF CUNNING
"Deliciously wicked."--The Washington Post Book World
"A Factory of Cunning is a well-made entertainment for people who don't go soft at the prospect of corsets and powdered wigs. The 18th-century milieu Stockley describes is so ruthless and exploitative that any shred of sentiment attached to the better-dressed past will be burnt to ashes on contact. Stockley's fidelity to the period and its language is nearly faultless."--Salon.com
Set in late 18th-century England, Stockley's American debut transports readers to the world immortalized in Dangerous Liaisons.
Philippa Stockley's heroine is a gloriously scheming and amoral French aristocrat, who goes by her nom de plume of Mrs Fox. Arriving in London with only a handful of gold and her loyal maidservant she sets about establishing herself with the high society. Mrs Fox is on the run from her past - and is being sought by a nameless would-be avenger - and her wish is to create a new, safe identity for herself as well as make lots of money, by whatever means possible.
Here are evil Earls, virginal lasses, bawdy clerics and a plot full complex twists and turns all told in an extraordinarily accurate 18th Century voice. The World of DANGEROUS LIAISONS is brilliantly bought to life in a swaggering, bawdy and very funny novel.
'I let my hand fall into my lap so woefully that Daneacre snatched it up again, creeping a little closer, his moleskin breeches denting my skirts. Now that he felt me to be unprotected I was fair game, as easy a prospect as a summer spinney stocked with pheasants to a seasoned poacher. Before I knew it he would be striding in knee deep.'
About the Author
Philippa Stockley is a deputy editor at the Evening Standard newspaper and also works as an artist and illustrator. She lives in London.
Reading Group Guide
Set in eighteenth-century London, A Factory of Cunning follows the scheming rise of Mrs. Fox as she pursues the goal of reinventing her life among her social equals. With more than a pauper's share of charm, wit, and guile, Mrs. Fox capitalizes on events and creates opportunity like a cat in a field of butterflies. What ensues is an irresistibly witty and compellingly salacious novel of revenge and greed as well as a fair share of vice, virtue, and the hypocritical niceties of society and the sexes. 1. Upon arrival in England, Mrs. Fox reflects on her past with the lament, "How far fallen!" In her new role as prostitute and procurer, does she find different levels of respectability based on social standing and wealth? Would she in present times? Consider Heidi Fleiss and Sydney Biddle Barrows (The Mayflower Madam) in your discussions. 2. The male characters of A Factory of Cunning can be compartmentalized into stereotypical clusters-fool, cuckold, devil. Assign a main category to the following characters and discuss how each both represents and breaks out of the stereotype: Earl Much, Lord Frederick Danceacre, Reverend Robert Denyss, Joshua Coats. 3. Based on Mrs. Fox's behavior in England, what is your assessment of her involvement in the debacle (depicted in the book Dangerous Liaisons) that caused her to flee her home in France? Was she culpable, either directly or indirectly, for the deaths of three innocent people? 4. Contrast and compare the characters of Earl Much and Doctor Hubert van Essel. Were you surprised by any of van Essel's actions? Which, if any, changed your initial opinion of him? 5. A reviewer in The Washington Post commented that Mrs. Fox is "a fantastically slippery character . . . who plays on the most unexpected juxtapositions to glide just beyond the reach of the law." Discuss your own feelings about Mrs. Fox. 6. Hubert van Essel states: "It is an undoubted truth that more knowledge can be gained from examining the motives and actions that belong to real lives, than from shutting oneself up in perpetual study." Do you agree or disagree with this statement? Cite examples from your own life that support your position. 7. Secondary to Mrs. Fox, who is the most important female character in the novel? Why? 8. Who was responsible for Violet Denyss's downfall? 9. Discuss Nathan Black's character traits and how they relate to the Byronic style (based on the romantic, defiant, melancholy, and artistic characteristics of poet Lord Byron). What do you think will happen to Nathan Black in the future? 10. How did the author's clever use of description influence your interest in the novel? Provide an example and discuss its relevance. 11. Remove the storyline from Georgian England and instead place it in modern-day America. Would the female characters behave any differently? How and why? 12. Mrs. Fox tends to view her actions as minor influences on tragic events. Is she rationalizing her behavior or is it true that she bears no responsibility for cause and effect? 13. Philippa Stockley is an expert in eighteenth-century clothing design and manufacture, and her novel is sprinkled with references to materials, styles, and sewing techniques-a dressmaker's dream. Does the author use clothing to reveal a character's inner traits or to disguise them? Can fashion do both? Explain. 14. Is Poppy Salmon a product of her heritage or social circumstance? Do you think she views her final stage of transformation as redemption or just another opportunity? 15. In traditional novels, the main character travels along an arc of change. In the beginning of A Factory of Cunning, Mrs. Fox decried "the very safety" of her life in Amsterdam. Do you think her disdain for safety changed by the end of the story? Did her character evolve in other ways? 16. At the end of the novel, Doctor Hubert van Essel writes a letter exclaiming his newfound happiness. Compared to other books you've read, do you find that A Factory of Cunning has a traditional "happy ending"?
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