London, 1711. As the rich, young offspring of the city's most fashionable families bll their days with masquerade balls and clandestine court-ships, Arabella Fermor and Robert, Lord Petre, lead the pursuit of pleasure. Beautiful and vain, Arabella is a clever coquette with a large circle of beaus. Lord Petre, seventh Baron of Ingatestone, is a man-about-town with his choice of mistresses. Drawn together by an overpowering attraction, the two begin an illicit affair.
Alexander Pope, sickly and nearly penniless, is peripheral by birth, yet his uncommon wit and ambition gain him unlikely entrance into high society. Once there, privy to every nuance and drama, he is a ruthless observer. He longs for the success that will cement his place in society; all he needs is one poem grand enough to make his reputation.
As the forbidden passion between Arabella and Lord Petre deepens, an intrigue of a darker nature threatens to overtake them. Fortunes change and reputations -- even lives -- are imperiled. In the aftermath, Pope discovers the idea for a daring poem that will catapult him to fame and fortune.
Hunchbacked satirist poet Alexander Pope finds inspiration in the foibles of 18th-century London's young, rich and arrogant in Gee's shrewd debut, an erudite period piece filled with outrageous flirtation, social maneuvering and contests of wit. The low-born Pope is permitted entry to London's upper echelons after some of his poems gain a gilded readership, and his literary ambitions and adventures in the city with childhood friends Martha and Teresa Blount are offset by the passionate but clandestine romance between the beautiful Arabella Fermor (who happens to be related to the Blounts), and the haughty Lord Petre, whose involvement in a plot to assassinate the queen lands him in a tight spot. The stories intersect when Pope immortalizes the lovers' high-class intrigue in a scalding poem. The novel is sprinkled with literary cameos and jokes English lit majors will appreciate, while crackling verbal one-upmanship and crude double entendres should keep the hoi polloi turning pages. Gee's take on the Paris Hilton-like figures who pranced through London 300 years ago manages to be simultaneously tabloid bawdy and academy proper.
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August 06, 2007
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Excerpt from The Scandal of the Season by Sophie Gee
"In tasks so bold, can little men engage"
The worst of country life was that the houses were always cold. Alexander sat as close to the fire as he could manage without blocking his parents' access to its modest heat. He suspected that his mother, at least, was suffering, but that she stayed farther back to allow him most of the warmth. Outside it was either snowing or raining; Alexander could not be sure which. It had been dark since three o'clock. They had dined at noon; tea had been brought in at four, and there were still another three hours before bed. His father had not allowed him to go to his chamber to write, because the fire had been overlooked during the afternoon and had burned out. He had not finished twenty lines of verse since Christmas, nearly a month ago.
The Georgics was open in his lap, and he had been reading the same poem for two hours. Virgil was all very well when Alexander was feeling that he, too, might write a poem as good as the Aeneid, but tonight Virgil's youthful verses reproached him. Will it always be like this if I obey my father? he asked himself. He heard his mother cough, and guessed that she was about to break in upon his thoughts.
"Sir Anthony Englefield asks you to pay him a visit," she said, holding out a letter. "He offers to send his carriage. I think that you should go, Alexander. Are not Teresa and Martha Blount presently at Whiteknights?"
He made no reply. But his heart leapt at the sound of Teresa's name, and he looked up, knowing that he was blushing. The Miss Blounts were both about Alexander's age. Their family seat, Mapledurham, was an estate on the other side of the Thames, but the girls visited their grandfather Sir Anthony Englefield at Whiteknights several times each year. Like Alexander and his family, the Blounts were Roman Catholics.
"I do not attend to the details of the Miss Blounts' arrangements," he said, in as careless a tone as he could manage.
"But you have not seen Sir Anthony since the beginning of December, Alexander," his mother replied. "Your health is enough restored. And you must make yourself pleasing to women," she added.
If only she knew how much he wanted to please Teresa, Alexander thought. But he said instead, "I think that Sir Anthony might have written the letter to me."
Alexander's spirits rose excitedly, even as he began to feel nervous. It was always thus. Teresa loved to tease him, but she did so with a sly smile that made him like her even more. Not wanting to appear too eager to reply to Sir Anthony's invitation, however, Alexander turned to his father, who was reading a newspaper. "What news from town?" he asked.
"A priest has been murdered, and the body left in Shoreditch," came the reply.
Alexander felt a surge of alarm. Shoreditch! Poor Catholics in London were still known to worship there secretly, in chapels above the taverns.
"Murdered?" Alexander echoed. "A priest?"
His father would never allow him back to town now. He had paid one short visit eighteen months before, after his first poems had been published, and had longed to return ever since. But the capital would always be haunted by the persecutions his father had once seen. Alexander's parents had been driven out when the Ten-Mile Act had been passed, forbidding papists to live within daily reach of the city. Years had gone by since then, and Catholics were returning to London, but Alexander's father was immovable. His son would not live in town. Alexander knew that the place had changed -- for three glorious weeks he had seen it with his own eyes. But supposing he were to disobey his parents' strictures, only to find himself in danger?
He reached for the paper and began to read the story.
"This man was not a priest, sir!" he exclaimed. "Indeed he may not have been a Catholic at all.