Book Of The Month November, 2008
The Scandal of the SeasonSophie Gee
What would you do if you were faced with a dangerous temptation you feared you couldn’t resist? The Scandal of the Season tells the story of the real-life seduction of the beautiful, clever Arabella Fermor by the charming, enigmatic nobleman Robert Petre, seventh Baron of Ingatestone. Arabella is in need of rich husband, but knows that girls have been ruined by risking an affair like the one she contemplates. The object of her desire is also flirting with a perilous Jacobite plot against Queen Anne. Watching the pair with a beady eye, is an outsider, a cripple, destined to become the genius of his age the poet Alexander Pope. He arrives in London from the country, burning with ambition. If he fails, he will be left destitute. But can he find a story for his next poem powerful enough to make his reputation? A seductive novel about risk and dangerous liaisons in a time of Jacobite plots and Popish fears, when marriage was a market, and sex was a temptation fraught with danger, The Scandal of the Season is a brilliant, witty modern love-story set in 1711. Sophisticated, sexy and hugely enjoyable, this dazzling debut novel is inspired by events that gave rise to the era s most celebrated satirical entertainment, The Rape of the Lock . The story plays out against the backdrop of 18th-century London: dirty, teeming street-life and glorious buildings, newly restored after the Great Fire; the River Thames, artery of England s trade and commerce; masked balls, operas, eating houses, clandestine courtships and political intrigue.
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Sophie Gee on her book The Scandal of the Season:
When I was writing my PhD in English, I sat in the Harvard University library for three years researching the history of pollution, sewage, waste-disposal, public-hygiene and personal cleanliness in eighteenthcentury London. (My thesis was about eighteenth-century waste!) I read newspapers, medical manuals, religious tracts, government edicts, personal diaries, doctors’ bills, advertising pamphlets, ballads, bawdy poems, court records. One morning, towards the end, I happened to pick up a copy of the New York Times while I was taking a coffee break. Something about the stories in the newspaper seemed strange to me. The language sounded stilted and arcane; the issues and op-ed [page facing editorial page in US newspapers] pieces out of date.
I realised that the period that I was researching actually seemed more real and more immediately recognisable than the actual present. Daily life in the eighteenth century had become more familiar to me than my own. It was definitely time to get out of graduate school.
But afterwards that memory of historical immersion stayed with me. It felt uncanny – the discovery that the everyday details of the past, however remote, could be found again, and that they were powerful enough to make me feel that I’d been transported in time. Hence the romance of time-travel, I suppose – the longing we all feel to see the mysterious past as though through the eyes of the present.
I wanted to get this feeling back again– and I wanted to turn it into a book that many different readers could enjoy.
Then, during my first year as an Assistant Professor at Princeton I taught a class on eighteenth-century literature, in which I gave a series of lectures about Alexander Pope’s most famous poem, The Rape of the Lock. The poem has always felt to me like a Jane Austen novel written a hundred years early. On the surface, it is light and bright and sparkling, but closer up it becomes a wry, cynical picture of a society corrupted by its own power and prosperity. The poem is set in London, which in Pope’s day was a much rougher, tougher place to live than we might imagine, but it was also the most glamorous, modern city in the world.
As I did more research into The Rape of the Lock, I realised that the true story of its characters and composition would make a wonderful book. It is a love-story and a literary mystery, recounting an untold tale of political intrigue, sexual scandal and literary celebrity.
And so I came to write The Scandal of the Season. I wanted it to be a book thatwould show two very different sides of the time and place – eighteenth-century London – that I had grown to love. The city of my PhD: chaotic, unruly, teeming with filth and waste; overcrowded, but filled with irrepressible energy. The literary capital of the world. And the London that we know from the grand portraiture and classical architecture of early Georgian England:magnificent, celebratory, courtly, proud. I wanted to write a book that would make people feel as though the past had become the present. It seemed the happiest use I could make of all those years in the archives.
First published in newbooks magazine, July/August 2008 issue. For a FREE introductory copy of the magazine or to subscribe go to newbooksmag.com.