1.10.2008

Gee's The Scandal of the Season

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Sophia Gee's charming novel provides the background, both historical and fictional, for Alexander Pope's famous poem, The Rape of the Lock, published in 1714. According to history, the incident involved three prominent, Catholic families: the Petres, Fermors, and Carlyles, who prior to this event were great friends. An incident occured between Arabella Fermor and Robert Petre, during which Lord Petre took, without permission, a lock of Arabella's hair. Pope was asked to write a satirical poem about the affair "to laugh the families back together." Later Pope said that the poem was also political allegory, in which Belinda represents Great Britain, and the Lock the Barrier Treaty. Neither of these aims are mutually exclusive, and it is evident from form, allusion, and Pope's Key to the Rape of the Lock, an explanation of the poem published later, that Pope had many missions for the poem. Technically, The Rape of the Lock is a fine example of 'mock-heroic' poetry and a mini-epic poem in the vein of Virgil and Homer. Pope was well-schooled in Homeric poetry, as he also translated The Iliad.

Alexander Pope, as Gee tells us at the end, was the first author in English to make a living solely from his work. Pope is an interesting character in his own right. He was crippled, and was known by all for his derisive wit and cutting conversation. (Confusingly, these acerbic qualities did not come through in Gee's novel; Pope appears nice and humble.)

Sophia Gee's novel plunges us into early 18th century London, where a woman's virtue is closely guarded (until she is married), gambling is a favorite pastime among the wealthy, Catholics and Protestants are still at odds with one another, and King James is launching an attack to gain the throne from Queen Anne. The plot is fast paced and interesting, but the dialogue is obvious, and often forced. Some of the diction is jolting, too: "Arabella sits up like a firework", for example. Gee does a nice job, on the whole, of re-creating characters from history, and they are largely sympathetic. The last major scene, the illustration of the scene immortalized in Pope's great poem, is the best part of the novel. Despite, these high points, the scenery descriptions, observations about hair, clothing, architecture, interior design that can make historical fiction so enticing were, sorrowfully, absent. If you have read about this period, or watched a few T.V. dramas set during this time, you do not have to work as hard - you are familiar with the setting - but, if you haven't, this novel might read to you like it's set during any time between 1650 and 1900.

For more information about The Rape of Lock go here.

If you like this, you might also like:

Karleen Koen's Through a Glass Darkly: Grand, detailed, luscious tale of 18th century England and France. The characters are vivid, the plot riveting, and the descriptions marvelous.

Alexander Pope's The Rape of the Lock




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