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...