Thursday, January 22, 2009

The Scandal of the Season

While on holidays over Christmas I was looking for a light, fun read. Something not too challenging. And I hoped that Sophie Gee's historical novel The Scandal of the Season would fulfil my requirements. I had heard about Gee's novel on an ABC TV special on the genre of romance- one of the series hosted by Jennifer Byrne. Sophie Gee appeared on the panel and came across as clever and interesting so I figured I should give her book a go.

My copy of The Scandal of the Season has a big gold sticker on the front proclaiming 'Women's Weekly Great Read' (for those of you overseas, Women's Weekly is a magazine aimed at middle aged housewives- recipes, celebrity interviews, that sort of thing). While I like to think of myself as egalitarian and certainly not a snob, I have to admit, I'm not that comfortable walking around with a big sticker on my book proclaiming that I have the same reading tastes as Women's Weekly readers. It doesn't sit well with my image of myself as an urban sophisticate :-)

Having revealed to you all that I'm a hopeless elitist, hopefully I can redeem myself somewhat by saying that none of this stopped me from actually reading The Scandal of the Season. The premise of the book is interesting. It is set in the eighteenth century and gives us a back story to Alexander Pope's famous poem, 'The Rape of the Lock'. I had studied the poem at university but that was a while ago and my memory of the poem is pretty sketchy, not that this mattered much, as Gee fills the reader in on the details.

The story involves the real life seduction of glamourous socialite Arabella Fermor by the dashing Lord Petre. The seduction is seen through the lens of Pope, who features as a main character in the novel, and his friends (cousins to Arabella) Martha and Teresa Blount. Gee has researched the period carefully and it is the historical details that I enjoyed most about the novel. She gives an interesting insight into the sexual lives of women at the time, and the enormous role that money and social status play in romance and marriage. Arabella and Lord Petre fall in love but cannot hope to marry as they are not social equals. Gee portrays the dangers facing young unmarried women who must preserve their virginity at all costs if they wish to marry well. Married women of aristocratic background seem to be able to indulge in affairs if they wish, an aspect of the society that I found fascinating. Men, as usual, seem to be able to get away with romantic indiscretions at any stage.

Another really interesting plot line involves a Jacobite plot to assassinate Queen Anne. Most of the major characters in the story, including Pope himself, are Catholics and therefore part of a persecuted minority (and possible suspects in any Jacobite plot). Many characters have memories of Catholics being burnt at the stake in the streets of London and there is a general fear that such violence will return. The novel starts with the murder of a Catholic priest and this theme continues throughout. I had known a little about the religious conflicts in England at the time, but Gee really brought this aspect of eighteenth century London to life for me.

Unfortunately, however, I didn't feel that The Scandal of the Season ultimately lived up to its potential, even as a light summer read. For a start, I think Gee has a problem writing realistic dialogue. The witty exchanges between characters just didn't really work a lot of the time. Also, a lot of the character exposition felt laboured. Gee describes the feelings of characters in enormous detail where I think she could have revealed this information more effectively through their actions. Finally, the plot, which is strong for most of the novel, just kind of peters out at the end. A stronger finish would have made me enjoy this book a lot more, although I guess that is the constraint of working with material based on actual historical events.

Gee's novel is a literate and well-researched book but with some major limitations. In the end, I found it interesting but have to disagree with the Women's Weekly 'Great Read' label. Not that I'm a snob or anything...


Sarah said...

I saw that episode of the First Tuesday Book Club, and like yourself thought Sophie Gee was intelligent and interesting.

I'm sorry to hear her novel was disappointing, I
d still like to try it though one of these days.

I suppose I am a snob in that I don't like books with movie tie covers, Women's Weekly or Oprah stickers etc. And they're so bloody hard to remove!

Sabine said...

That was a really luscious cover, though. Did yours come with the removable mask, too?

I would totally second your review of the novel - it's interesting, the period detail is great, but it does not live up to its promise nor, I suspect, to the author's ambition. A bit of a shame, really. However, I thought the, um, more romantic scenes were really rather good.

Dorothy W. said...

Interesting review. I'd like to read this one because I love the 18C, but I haven't gotten around to it yet because I've seen a few mixed reviews like yours, and that dampens my interest somewhat. Too bad. I may still read it anyway -- we'll see.

jess said...

Sarah, I'm glad you agree about Sophie Gee. She did come across well, didn't she? She is obviously a smart woman and I think she has a good novel in her- maybe just not this one. I agree that I don't like any stickers/ movie tie-ins either.

Sabine, yes, the cover is great. The gold detailing doesn't show up on the picture on my post but it was really nice. And you reminded me that it did come with a mask that I've misplaced somewhere now that I think about it! It seems we have similar thoughts on the novel- and I agree about the 'romantic' scenes! It isn't easy to write a good sex scene and Gee manages it quite admirably.

Dorothy, it might be worth a look, especially with your interest in the 18C. I'd be interested to hear what you think of it.

Tamara said...

Jess, Sorry to hear that your summer read didn't live up to it's potential. I enjoyed your little expression of elitist self though. And for that expression of self through your blog, I nominate you for the Premio Dardos Award. See my blog for more details, and continue to express you self individually. thanks

jess said...

Thanks for the award Tamara!