In with the In Crowd
THE SCANDAL OF THE SEASON
By Sophie Gee
Scribner. 351 pp. $25
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 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 (a.k.a. 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 Book World. He can be reached at email@example.com.