The Scandal Of The Season
Chatto & Windus, $32.95 pb, 289 pp
The Rape of The Lock helped secure Alexander Pope’s reputation as a commanding poet of the early eighteenth century. This mock-epic poem, based on a real incident, satirises the trivialities of high society by comparing it with the epic world of the gods. One of Pope’s acquaintances, Lord Petre, cut off a ringlet of hair from his paramour Arabella, thereby causing a breach of civilities between the two families. Pope was asked to write a poem to make jest of the situation and to reconcile the disgruntled parties. Its success was due to the disparity between content and form, between his mischievous coupling of petty vanity and the lofty grandeur of traditional epic subjects. The rape of Helen of Troy thus becomes the theft of a curl of hair; instead of gods and goddesses there are ‘sylphs’ or guardian spirits, and great battles are converted to gambling bouts and flirtatious sparrings.
Sophie Gee’s first novel, set in 1711, takes the reader behind the heavy velvet curtains of Pope’s melodrama to reveal the leading players: Arabella Fermor, who ‘at the age of twenty-two combined beauty and cleverness in almost equal parts’; her suitor, Lord Petre; and a host of attendant ladies and gentleman, including Pope himself who, more often than not, is cast in a spectator role and is usually seen peering from the wings. The Scandal of the Season follows the seduction and dalliance of belle of the ball Arabella and her handsome lord amid the gossipy, bitchy world of clacking fans and hair ‘like confectionery’.