Wednesday 31 August 2022

Review: The Scandal of the Season by Sophie Gee

 I picked up Sophie Gee’s The Scandal of the Season shortly after watching the first series of Bridgerton and it looked like similar campy, arch, nonsense with its Aubrey Beardsley cover and a detachable fuchsia face-mask. It’s not that. The blurb implies that the novel is a risky love story tied up with a Jacobite mystery but that’s more the subplot, the main story is about young Alexander Pope.

It’s strange, the story of young Pope, an outsider from high society because of his mercantile and Catholic background, further marked out by his illness and hunch-backed body, is by far the more interesting element in the book and downplayed by its cover. Pope (or simply Alexander, as the book frequently calls him) is a charming character, a little gauche and naive, with a deep ambition to be a great writer but a touching doubt that his talents won’t be enough to secure success. He’s far from the snidey, aggressive author of The Dunciad, having published a few pastoral poems that he’s afraid will lead to him being labelled as a sweet, country-born bard. His Essay in Criticism is about to come out and his principle emotion is worry, particularly that he will be attacked by the critic Dennis, who he’d later eviscerate as ‘The King of Dulness’.

The novel itself starts with a priest being murdered, starting a running sub-plot of Jacobean plotting. It’s frequently off to the side of the novel, with certain characters slipping away during society functions to share warnings and packets of money. Interestingly, this is a plot, but not a Jacobean one. It’s a scam run by a dodgy sometime slave dealer who is playing on the high-emotions of the Jacobites and the need for secrecy to cover the scam. I really enjoyed this little twist, so many books have the Jacobite plot in them, from Moonfleet to The Virtue of the Jest and it was nice to have it play out a little different. 

Ultimately, the book is about recontextualising the event that prompted Pope’s Rape of the Lock. Within that poem, it was a pretty simple act, that a Baron cut off the lock of hair from a beauty because he wanted her so badly. Lord Petrie was the Baron and Arabella ‘Belle’ Fermor was the lady. Throughout the novel they have an illicit affair, starting as public flirting but becoming a private and sexual affair. This also allows Belle to have access to more exclusive social circles, which she revels in but it’s clear the two are in love with each other also. It does also mean this novel does have some fairly explicit love scenes and references to Rochester’s poems and visual pornography. It doesn’t make this book the bonkbuster it seems to have been marketed as, those scenes are few and the focus does seem more on Alexander Pope then this romance. When Petrie’s family discover and disapprove of the affair, they can leverage Petrie’s foolishness with the Jacobite stuff to make him publicly break off their secret engagement by stealing her hair - so the ‘trivial act’ of the poem is not as trivial as it first appears.

I really liked the dramatisation of Pope’s relationship with the Blount sisters, Teresa and Martha. The eldest is trying to ape Belle and enter her circles, the younger is aware that she’s not the kind of person to seek attention. Pope is romantically infatuated with Teresa but he is more drawn to Martha as a person - the three were going to have a complicated relationship for the rest of their lives. 

There’s also depiction of Pope’s first meetings with Swift and Gay, lifelong friends (though largely by letter) and members of the Scriblerus club. There’s even a glimpse of how they bounced ideas off each other as they jokingly create an ‘unlearned’ club while chatting during an Italian-style opera. Swift even points out his own ‘savage indignation’, a description he’d have engraved on his tomb, though he does laugh at one point, something he was never reported to have done. Apparently he barely even smiled.

This book is set in a world where most social encounters involve verbal jousting. It might make the book seem a little odd or stiff at first but once acclimatised, it was interesting how well character was established through these formalised conversations. Pope has a skill at simile and comparison but often pitches his conversation too humbly or boldly, Teresa has a habit of being a little sharp, Arabella a little too insouciant. For the most part Lord Petrie pulls it off perfectly, but he has the confidence of title, cash and good looks to do so. That does mean it is genuinely shocking when a character ditches the social game and says exactly what they thought, and these moments were sprinkled well throughout the book.

Ultimately, I thought this a really decent novel about a young man of talent but little social standing making his first entrance into a highly stratified social world, with some romance, plotting and sex to provide some contrasts. I think it should have been more clearly marketed as what it was, as it would disappoint those expecting a campy sexfest or a thrilling Jacobite novel. 

Wednesday 24 August 2022

Review: The Rape of the Locke by Alexander Pope

Pope’s The Rape of the Lock is a poem I’d read before but I reread it in advance of reading a novel about its creation called The Scandal of the Season. The version I read was the 1717 one in the student Twickenham edition.

In the introduction to this version, Pope claims the original version was printed against his will when he hadn’t finished writing it. How many times did Pope pull that stunt? With his letters, he even cheated a printer into publishing it before turning on him in print for doing so. He says that in his new version, he has made Belinda less like Arabella, the woman who actually had her hair snipped off. He also says he’s added Machinery, an equivalent to the muses, dryads, Gods and Goddesses of classic poetry. These come in the form of sylphs, a notion he’s nicked from the Rosicrucians. 

Famously, the poem is about “What mighty contests arise from trivial things”, in this case how a man cutting a woman’s hair led to her being upset. The tone is mock-heroic, in which the small details are described in the full lusciousness of epic poetry. I have to admit, I now find this poem extremely camp, and the sylphs don’t help.

We meet them swirling in the air, enacting all the pleasures and wishes of ‘polite’ society. They are Belinda’s dreams of all the things she’s hoping for in life but it’s presented as a grand vision. A vision with a warning of darkness in it. Belinda then gets up and puts on her make up. I many ways this reminded me of a tooling-up scene in an action film, these are her weapons and she plans to leave the house well-armed. There’s also a theme of prayer as she performs the “sacred rites of pride” that “calls forth the wonders of her face”. It’s almost like she, herself is a chief priestess but the vision in the mirror is her goddess.

We are then introduced to the villain, a Baron who is besotted by Belinda’s hair and is determined to take some. It reminded me a little of the episode in Casanova’s life, when he gathered the hair of a woman he was ‘in love’ with and turned them into sweets that he’d eat as he tried to seduce her - he actually failed that time. The Baron has his own altar, one to romance built of twelve French romances. However, if The Female Quixote taught me correctly about those books, they would not have suggested stealing hair, a hero would have been banished from his loved one for decades if he tried that.

There is a lovely (and very camp) description of Belinda going in a boat to the party, surrounded by her sylphs. They are described as fairylike, fluttering in many colours, with butterfly-like wings glistening. There are also hundreds of them guarding her, many around her skirts, many around her head and the chief one keeping an eye on her lapdog, Shock. She arrives like an invisible fairyland.

Those same sylphs then help Belinda win at cards. It’s described as being “combat on a velvet plane” and the cards are anthropomorphised into warriors, battling it out. The image of the cards physically duking it out was fun and seemed almost Alice in Wonderland to me. Belinda is not a quiet winner either, she shouts and hollers when she wins, a hint of her actions to come. Then the Baron approaches with his “two edged weapon” as she is looking into her coffee cup.

It’s actually a tense scene, with Pope repeating the word ‘thrice’ as the Baron steals himself to cut her hair. As he slices, he cuts a sylph, no need to worry though “airy substance soon unites again”. He cuts her hair and Belinda immediately screams, leading Pope to wonder how her hair has the sensation to let her know it’s been cut.

The next canto is the ‘Cave of Spleen’, which is pure camp. I may partly think this as I have a copy of Aubrey Beardsley’s illustration of it on my toilet door but the text does include living teapots and Mrs Potts is a camp icon. It’s essentially a psychedelic representation of a bad mood, especially the bad mood of someone who’s a little dramatic. She complains to her dad, who speaks crossly to the Baron in sweary cliché, a speech described as speaking “so well”. Belinda mourns the lock of hair, wishing she’d never been to the party and had been a hermit. 

The sylph Cassandra then comes and give the moral of the piece, it’s a crap moral. Essentially Cassandra argues that Belinda should cheer up, it’s only a lock of hair and that no men are going to like her is she seems melodramatic and fussy. I, however am rather on Belinda’s side. It really is a terrible invasion of space to cut someone’s hair without warning. I know the title uses the word ‘rape’ as part of its mock-heroic style, but there is a line crossed there for me. Luckily, everyone ignores Cassandra, as people always do.

Belinda goes into battle, first by shouting and giving dirty looks. Men “die in metaphor” in those angry eyes, it’s a massacre.. sort of. Then she takes some snuff and shoves it up the Baron’s nose, incapacitating him, something I definitely stealing for something I write sometime. She gets the pin out of her hair and is prepared to jab him with it when the hair becomes a comet’s tail, being placed in the sky for all to see and admire - like the stories where heroes become constellations. 

I found it odd the poem ends there, we never actually find out the resolution of the conflict. In real life the couple’s engagement was called off. I really enjoyed my re-read of this poem. It has a cartoony, technicolour quality and I enjoyed it as an (inadvertent?) example of high camp. I look forward to seeing what a novel does with the material.

Wednesday 17 August 2022

Review: The Paper Chase by Joseph Hone

 The Paper Chase by Joseph Hone is a work of thoroughly researched history (with full bibliography, notes and index) that reads something like a thriller. It’s about an incendiary book, the covert way it was created and the huge spy-hunt to track down the people connected with it.

Starting with a woman in a mask delivering a manuscript to publishers, David Edwards and his wife Mary. It’s titled The Memorial for the Church of England and it argues that the dissenters, those protestants who feel the Church of England didn’t go far enough in its reforms, are the real dangerous people in the nation and deserve persecution. This was a particularly dangerous message for the government, which was pursuing a moderate path, which could easily be shaken up by a rise in sectarian strife. The government’s man on the job is Robert Harley (who will incidentally be the person whose library catalogue brought Samuel to the attention of the publishers who’d commission the dictionary).

It was a dangerous time to be a printer. The lapse of press regulation which had given birth to a free press was being clamped down. Publishers found themselves hung-drawn-and-quartered for putting out dangerous works and, at the lower end of punishment, were being put in the pillory, sometimes to be beaten insensible. There was even a version of the pillory where a person’s earlobes were nailed to the wooden board and would be sliced off to free them at the end of the ordeal.

What’s more, the government had a system of officers called messengers, many of them ex-bookmen, who would go under-cover, smash doors down or even use honeytraps to find the publishers of dangerous books. While some were diligent, many were crooked, which could work to a bookseller’s advantage if they had the money for a bribe or well-connected support but also meant they could be damned with planted evidence or paid witnesses.

 The central mystery in the book is an interesting one. There’s clearly a powerful set of people behind the Memorial and Edwards, as humble printer, is peripheral to their plot and an easy fall-guy. He goes on the run as his wife turns detective to find the culprits and force them to provide the safety and support they promised. She’s the best character in this book, putting together clues and creating false personas to get closer to the conspiracy while Harley and his state apparatus get nowhere.

One of the most interesting elements of this book is how it is framed. It’s the story of plucky printers avoiding the nasty government. Harley is frequently described as shifty with ‘little, dark, unfathomable eyes’. No one trusts him and he trusts no one. It’s strange, because the plucky heroes, the printers, put into the world a spite-filled invective that calls for oppression, suppression, persecution and death to dissenters. While the ‘evil’ government is seeking a moderate, centrist and tolerant approach. 

The real villains turn out to be the writers of the book, who are trying to ferment hatred for political ends and have no qualms about throwing poor Edwards and his family under the bus. It’s strange for a history book to have heroes and villains though. This is a very opinionated book, various politicians and writers are variously described as ‘shrieking’ or ‘wearisome’. It’s clear that the author is no Whig, no centrist and has a rather pessimistic view on humanity that is more Hobbes than Shaftesbury. He has the most vicious takedown of Shaftesbury and his view of innate human goodness; “It was abundantly clear that Shaftesbury mixed in exclusive, urbane circles, with fellow Whigs with impeccable and turgid manners”.

This is a well-written and gripping book about the political and religious divides of the early eighteenth century and successfully dramatises it using the case of Edwards and the Memorial. A look under the bonnet of the book shows a lot of research but it’s never dry or slow. While it did wear its own personal opinions a little obviously, they gave a little spice to the book and also reminded the reader that such opinions are in all books.

The book starts in the Edwards' print house in Nevill's Alley, just off Fetter Lane and I wondered if I could find it, as I go down Fetter Lane every week to Dr Johnson's House. To my surprise it turns out I go down Nevill's Alley every week as well but now it's just a gap between two large glass buildings filled with offices. 

I also learned there was a popular coffee house on Fleet Street called Nandos.

Wednesday 10 August 2022

A Trip to Bath with The Dr Johnson Reading Circle (My Own Little Adventure)

 In my official writeup of the Dr Johnson Reading Society’s trip to Bath, I said that after the tour there was the choice to go to No.1 Royal Crescent or the Herschel Museum of Astronomy but, having been to both relatively recently, I went on my own adventure

I popped into the Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution for their ‘Beyond Beastly: creatures natural and imagined’ exhibition. It’s a fun and varied look at mythological creatures from unicorns to jabberslythes.

Dominated by a massive unicorn cut out with a narwhal’s tooth where the horn should be, this was right up my alley. I love mythical beasts with Chris Lavers’s The Natural History of Unicorns and Peter Dickinson’s The Flight of Dragons being some of my favourite books. The aim of ‘Beyond Beastly’ was to show how our ideas about animals have changed and how the rational and irrational parts of our culture feed into and off of each other. There are real creatures named after mythological ones because they reminded scientists of the legends, that in turn may have inspired the legends to begin with.

What’s really fun is the sheer range of items in the exhibition. There’s Dürer’s famous rhinoceros engraving and weighty works of natural history and proto-natural history but these are contrasted with fossils and bones, teeth from extinct sharks and Maori accounts of Moas to copies of Aquaman, Conan the Barbarian and My Little Pony. There’s even a jabberslythe model - a creature I had never heard of because it’s part of Warhammer and was leant to the exhibition by Bath’s local Warhammer Branch.

Free and fun, it’s very recommended.

I then mooched and wandered, may have popped into a few bookshops before finding Sally Lunn’s, claiming to be the oldest shop in Bath. A little research reveals that much of Sally Lunn’s ‘history’, including the existence of Sally Lunn herself is highly dubious and probably invented in the 1930s when the present teashop was founded. 

However, I did have one of their buns. To be honest, I expected a little more, having heard of them a few times and unable to find the place last time on the really bad map Bath gives to tourists. The bun itself is a soft, white roll a bit brioche-y. It's perfectly pleasant but not all that special in itself. What made it special was that it has been warmed in an oven, slathered in butter and served with a really good lemon curd and a pot of loose leaf tea. I suppose there was virtue in its simplicity and, full of bun, I went to the forbidding but very cool bookshop by the station and then onto the Pizza Express to meet the rest of the group. (I had a starter for my meal, because I really was very full of bun).

Wednesday 3 August 2022

A Trip to Bath with The Dr Johnson Reading Circle

 On Friday the 29th July, Members of the Dr Johnson’s Reading Circle managed to pick a day between train strikes and were rushing into Bath Spa. Outside the station we met Victoria and Andrew, the two foolhardy guides who’d agreed to give us a special tour of the city with a focus on Samuel Johnson, his friends and connections. 

Our first stop was on the South Parade, originally intended to be part of a hugely ambitious forum, it hadn’t quite come together but was a fine and elegant street in itself. We stopped at the house at the end, a quiet spot where we could hear the ‘pock’ sound of cricket being played in the field the other side of the river Avon. This was the house the Thrales took as their Bath residence, where they played host to Fanny Burney, shortly after she was revealed to be the author of Evelina. Her journal described the packed itinerary of concerts, balls and the occasional dull gathering that had to be endured. Receiving advice from her mentor ‘Daddy’ Crisp, she was told that Bath was ‘the great school of the world’. A little exaggerated perhaps, but Bath really was an intense social network packed into a fairly small town. These connections were the theme of the tour. 

One of her activities was to visit Bath’s Theatre Royal, only a couple of minutes walk away but taken by Hester and Fanny in sedan chairs (Henry Thrale opted out). Samuel Foote had performed at the Theatre Royal but the up-and-coming name when the Thrale party visited was Sarah Siddons. When she left Bath for London, she announced she had three reasons to leave behind her fond audience and chase the big city money, then her children walked on the stage and not a dry eye was left in the house. Towards the end of her life she visited Johnson in Bolt Court. There was nowhere for her to sit, leading Johnson to say ‘Madam, you who so often occasion a want of seats to other people, will the more easily excuse the want of one yourself.’ He could be quite charming when he wished. There’s a painting of this meeting in Dr Johnson’s House.

Our third stop was where Goldsmith stayed in Bath when he was researching his biography of Beau Nash and Burke later dwelt when he came to take the waters for his health. At this point we were only a few stops in and had seen locations connected with at least six of the books read by the Reading Circle up to this point.

We went to the houses of Hannah Moore and Elizabeth Carter, who were both given chapters in Wits and Wives (and painted by Francis Reynolds, subject of another chapter). Incidentally, Hannah Moore wrote a book called Coelebs in Search of a Wife, which had the subtitle Comprehending Observations on Domestic Habits and Manners, Religion and Morals - needless to say, my copy is in the post.

Just behind the Assembly Halls, there is a street called Alfred Street and in that street a house called Alfred House, which has a little bust of King Alfred on it. It was originally owned by the reverend Thomas Wilson, a man who looked, ‘so decrepit, it’d scarce be a sin to bury him as he is’. He gave the deeds of this house to his close friend (and lover?) Catherine Macaulay, noted historian and republican. It was at one of her gatherings that Johnson suggested the footman should eat with them, to really put her republican principles into action and then remarked, “your levellers wish to level down as far as themselves; but they cannot bear levelling up to themselves.” She also featured in Doctor of Love, where the Dr James Graham fell in love with her but she eloped with his twenty-two year old younger brother, with the deeds to Alfred House. 

On our way towards the famous Circus and Royal Crescent, we stopped outside eight Gay Street. Here, Hester Thrale-Piozzi lived out her last days, which sounded like a lot of fun. For her eightieth birthday she danced til five in the morning and was remarked for her ‘great elasticity’. Following the death of her beloved Piozzi, she had the friendship, and  was linked romantically (by gossips) to Thomas Conway, an actor whose good looks evoked caws from the tour group when his portrait was shown. It seems that she knew how to grow old.

The tour finished at the Royal Crescent with the choice of two parties. One being held by Elizabeth ‘fidget’ Montague, featuring rational entertainment and good conversation. The other held by Alicia McCartney, also known as Mrs McDevil. This may have been a more wild night but any indiscretions would be gossiped about later. Not that the Montague party would be entirely tame, we were shown a Reynolds print called ‘Breaking up of the Blue Stocking Club’, in which the women are brawling. An example of what Victoria proudly called ‘the bluestocking, badass women of Bath’

The tour was a big success, somehow managing to be a ‘greatest hits’ of the books we’ve read throughout the years so far, giving us stories we knew and ones that were new to us, enlivened by well chosen quotes and pictures. We wish to thank Victoria and Andrew. 

Following the tour and a little refreshment, the group broke up to tour No.1 Royal Crescent, home of Irish MP, Henry Sandford or to tour the domestic delights of Herschel Museum of Astronomy. At this point, your humble author went in such of beer and buns - and we all met up at a Pizza Express (naturally) to eat, drink wine and present Jane with a 1929 edition of Gilbert White’s The Natural History of Selborne. Thanks to Jane and Julia for organising the trip, and to Melanie for hooking us up with the guides. 

As Catherine Morland says in Northanger Abbey (and possibly paraphrasing Johnson) ‘Oh! Who can ever be tired of Bath?’