I don’t know much about 18th century literature and I know even less about Alexander Pope – generally regarded as the greatest English poet of the time. But the Australian (I am suitably shamed) Sophie Gee does. Her debut novel centres around the summer of 1711 and the events which inspired Pope’s “The Rape of the Lock”.
The cover hints broadly at what is to be expected.
Aristocratic shenanigans, balls, masquerades (my copy came complete with a shocking pink mask – to encourage reader participation, I presume), coffee houses, wit, love affairs and scandal. Scandals, in fact and you can debate which is the greater. Would it be the affair between the most beautiful woman – Arabella Fermour – and the most handsome male – Lord Robert Petre? Or would it be the underlying political intrigues of a Jacobite conspiracy?
Certainly the novel starts with a very strong prologue in which a Catholic priest is attacked and murdered. Thereafter, however, the political intrigue is demoted. Always there. We know who’s involved but never the exact extent. The plot to assassinate the queen – Queen Anne – must not divert us from the main preoccupations of the day …
… which are – lest you forget – hunts, masquerades and balls. The flamboyancy of the period is staggering. Lashings of C18th wit and repartee where everyone says plenty but never much of note. Everyone is wanting to make the best match. Yet sincere declarations are unwelcome, serving only to engender discomfort and tension.
Alexander Pope is in town, seeking to drive forward his literary career and find fame and fortune. He is hindered in many respects: he’s Catholic, he’s not wealthy and he’s a hunchback (the result of a childhood illness). Yet the brilliance of his mind is generally acknowledged – he needs only his breakthrough poem. This season is about to give him the material for that poem in spades for Arabella Fermour and Robert Petre’s clandestine relationship is about to get downright dirty and dangerous ….
Pope is not without his critics. In an article, the 18th century equivalent of Banville’s now infamous demolition of McEwan, John Dennis begins a critical essay “As there is no creature so venomous, so there is nothing so stupid and impotent as a hunchback toad …”. A quotation used staggeringly by an assumed friend to embarass Pope in a public setting – a scene which serves to foreshadow the moment of Arabella’s public humiliation when …. oh, but that would be telling, wouldn’t it?
While focusing on the social niceties and apparent tolerance of both lower classes and Catholics, Sophie Gee uncovers the nastiness beneath the surface veneer. There are cold eyes above the smiles. And there are teeth; teeth used often enough to demonstrate that the moral heart of this society is more akin to the physical state of London itself:
The streets are running sewage, with water over the ankle. I’ll swear that I had my foot caught around the puddings of a dog while I was crossing Albemarle Street.