Hands up, anyone else who hasn’t read Alexander Pope’s The Rape of the Lock? Not just me then. Thank heavens. Mind you, you don’t really need to have read it in order to enjoy this fictionalised account of its creation. Gee brings late Stuart London to life in all its snobbish splendour: here are the coffee houses, the levees and masquerades, the self-obsessed glittering mass of the nobility and the hungry throng of writers snapping at their heels. One of these, hungrier and more ambitious than the rest, is a young Catholic poet named Alexander Pope, who has come to London hoping to make his name.
As a Papist, Alexander has spent his childhood in country isolation, made lonelier by a sickness which has left him with a severely curved spine. His parents, product of the Jacobite generation, fled from persecution in London and have made a life for themselves among like-minded neighbours, keeping themselves close and quiet. But Alexander itches for the bright lights of town, which he’s seen all too briefly. However, in the spring of 1711 he finally manages to persuade his father to let him head back to the metropolis. The days of Catholic persecution are over, after all! Everyone is more enlightened now. The only shadow over his trip is the recent murder of a man dressed as a Catholic priest, but since it seems to be a case of mistaken identity, no one takes it too seriously.
Alexander isn’t the only young person from his circle to head to London. His friends, the two Blount sisters, are also heading to town for their first season. The eldest, Teresa, has won Alexander’s heart, though she shows no signs of wanting it. Fully conscious of her own beauty and wit, she’s determined instead to win some great prize on the marriage mart. Her sister, quiet Martha, has her own unrequited love to cherish and has no great hopes of making her own match. But all three of them will be daunted by the vastness of London. For Teresa, it will come as a brutal reminder that a reputation as a beauty in the country means nothing in town; while Alexander is overwhelmed by his meetings with established writers like Richard Steele, John Gay and the old misanthrope Dr Swift. Fortunately the three youngsters meet often, as they move in the same circles: Alexander as a guest of his friend, the painter Charles Jervas, and the girls as friends of their irritatingly beautiful cousin, Arabella Fermor.
This could almost be a season from a Georgette Heyer novel, except that more is at stake. We aren’t in the early 19th century, after all. We’re in the age of rakes and Rochester, and a young woman has to be careful with her reputation; but we’re also in an age of religious division and lingering political discontent. Although the Jacobites are thought long defeated, there are still whispers in the shadows and hints that the king across the water hasn’t been forgotten. As Alexander savours the light and life around him, he’ll discover that some of those around him are at the heart of a storm. Before the season is out, one young woman’s honour will lie on the line and one young man will be on the verge of committing treason and regicide.
Gee’s novel conjures up the times very well (as you might expect: she wrote the novel while also writing a PhD on Pope). She captures the overly polite style of the period, to the point that it’s almost a shock when the odd cruder word creeps in. There are times, though, when it feels too mannered: Pope and Jervas, for example, have chats in which they address each other by name every single time they speak, as if they might forget who they are without that reminder. And it took me a while to stop feeling that everyone was being excessively stiff… though it lightened up as we went on. There are a few other things that niggle: after all that build-up, the whole Jacobite business falls fairly flat; and I’m still not exactly sure why the cropping of a lock of hair was so scandalous an act, but never mind. Plus, I’m always happy when a book includes a completely gratuitous visit to a Handel opera at the Haymarket, with Nicolini making a brief cameo (Rinaldo, in case you’re wondering).
Now I should go and find this poem and see what all the fuss is about…