The Scandal of the Season: A Novel
Title: The Scandal of the Season: A Novel
Author: Sophie Gee
A tale based on the early eighteenth-century scandal that inspired Alexander Pope’s “The Rape of the Lock” finds an impoverished Alexander Pope gaining entry into society and following a forbidden affair between the rakish Lord Petre and the coquettish Arabella.
This witty novel feels nothing like a debut; its seasoning is due to Sophie Gee’s erudition—she is an assistant professor in the Department of English at Princeton—and her sophisticated approach to the story she has to tell. It is 1711 in London, when beautiful wealthy people spend their time at masquerade balls, levées, assignations and evening performances in the endless pursuit of pleasure, gossip, political and social advantage.
Alexander Pope is a poet of some repute who leaves his country home to spend “the season” in London. He is a Catholic and, as such, is aware of the Jacobite plot to return James VII of Scotland and the House of Stuart to the throne of England, which has been usurped by Mary and William of Orange, Protestants who have instituted harsh rules against Catholics. This is one thread of the plot, as Alexander, the canny observer, puts two and two together and deduces who is involved with whom. Three families have long been associated with the Jacobites: the Fermors, the Carylls, and the Petres.
More to the point is the intrigue between Arabella Fermor and Lord Petre. The beautiful and haughty Arabella attracts Lord Petre instantly and they spend no time consummating their attraction—with everyone privy to it. Naturally, the expectation is that they will marry, even though Arabella is not wealthy enough to be a really good match. Alas, Lord Petre is prevailed upon by his family to give up Arabella and his doomed Jacobite intentions, marry another and save the family name. Further, he must make a public display of terminating the affair with Arabella.
All of this leads to Alexander Pope writing “The Rape of the Lock,” in which a lock of “Belinda’s” hair is cut—in public! In language and cadences reserved for 16th century novels, Gee has created a delightful and plausible romp through the practices, plots, romances, posturing and superficiality of Pope’s time. It is known that his epic poem was concerned with the three families aforementioned; the rest might also be true, but almost three hundred years later what really matters is how much fun this is to read! —Valerie Ryan