The Scandal of the Season

By Sophie Gee

Scribner. 352 pp., $25

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Reviewed by Leonard Boasberg


'I'm bound to say that I've never got through that book myself," says a character in Sophie Gee's debut novel,

The Scandal of the Season

, speaking of John Milton's

Paradise Lost

. "I know one shouldn't admit it," he added.

I admit that until now I'd never gotten through Alexander Pope's The Rape of the Lock, the exceedingly long (five cantos) satiric poem that describes the illicit affair of Lord Robert Petre, the charming scion of a wealthy Catholic family, and Arabella Fermor, the reigning beauty of London. I'm also bound to say that you needn't have read the poem to enjoy the novel.

Set in early 18th-century London, The Scandal of the Season evokes an era of high fashion and low morals, of political and sexual intrigue, gossip and betrayal and religious strife between Protestants, now dominant in the reign of Queen Anne, and Catholics. The ambition of young girls of fashionable society is to marry into wealth. One does not marry for love but for fortune, and a woman who has a fortune or is heir to one will have no dearth of suitors, however dull and unattractive she may be. Sexual adventures are very much de rigueur. "Nobody expects married women to be chaste," Lord Robert observes cynically, speaking very much from experience.

In this world, Alexander Pope, crippled, witty, erudite and ambitious, lives in the country with his respectable but poor Catholic family. He dreams of London, where the action is and where he can achieve his aspiration to make his name as a poet.

Arriving at last in London, Pope is taken in by a Protestant friend, observes the high-society scene, and searches for a theme for the poetry that will make him famous. He finds it in the dangerous liaison between Lord Robert and Arabella.

Arabella combines beauty and cleverness, and she knows it. "Arabella had good manners, excellent conversation, and highly developed powers of social observation," as Gee describes her. "She was, therefore, uniquely positioned to put her talents to the use for which they had been cultivated: the acquisition of a rich husband."

She has one flaw, however: No dowry. To Lord Robert, this is no obstacle to marriage; to his family, it is an insurmountable obstacle. His dilemma is compounded when he is threatened with exposure of his involvement in a Jacobite conspiracy to return the Stuarts to the throne.

Sophie Gee, an assistant professor of English at Princeton University, portrays the manners and morals of the period, distant but in so many ways contemporary, with imagination and wit. Many of the literary lions of the day make brief appearances in the novel - Jonathan Swift; Richard Steele and Joseph Addison, cowriters and editors of the Tatler and the Spectator; and John Gay (The Beggar's Opera). As for Alexander Pope, with The Rape of the Lock he achieves the fame and fortune he sought as well as a place in the undergraduate curriculum of English majors.

Leonard Boasberg is a former staff writer for The Inquirer. He lives in Strafford, Pa. lboasberg@comcast.net.