A Factory of Cunning
Philippa Stockley
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A Factory of Cunning

Philippa Stockley
Harcourt
Hardcover
368 pages
April 2005
rated 5 of 5 possible stars
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Eighteenth-century London. Is it the well-appointed and pampered halls of aristocracy or the bawdy houses and crime-riddled back alleys where theft and deceit thrive? All is revealed in this remarkable novel, its pages cluttered with fops and cutpurses, carters and shopkeepers, all with an eye to survival. The language is as ribald and colorful as the times, a feast of linguistic legerdemain. In other words, all is fabulously decadent, immersing the reader in the underbelly of London's scoundrels and purveyors of pretension in every form.

Fleeing France by the skin of her teeth, the heroine of A Factory of Cunning resides for a period in Holland under the care of her protector, Dr. Hubert van Essel. Eventually she fetches up on the shores of England with her maid in tow; changing name and identity, the former Madame Combien (Mrs. How-Much) has every intention of setting up her business in London's bawdy section. To that end, she contacts persons recommended by her physician benefactor in Holland, establishing her credentials in London society.

Never has the war between the sexes been so cleverly writ, the debauchery and cunning of vice pitted against the city's airs of refinement, the vile odors of betrayal disguised by pungent eau de toilette sprinkled on a lace-trimmed handkerchief, the language itself written in almost anecdotal code. Mrs. Fox's endeavors generate immediate interest, but she proffers one advance that may be her undoing, associating herself with the Earl of Much, a gentleman reputedly unmatched in cunning artifice, fabulously rich and dangerously powerful.

The battle for submission is brilliantly engaged by Mrs. Fox and the Earl, a tour de force of machinations and cynical ripostes played out in a series of letters flying from the pen of one character to another. Dr. van Essel has a personal stake in the outcome of Fox versus Much as well, although he refuses to disclose the details as the two foes engage in a duel of wits: the he and the she, each determined to best the other in a contest of manners and assignations, twisted deceits and double entendres.

The letters of those concerned grow more agitated as the plot thickens, each determined to achieve preeminence and claim victory. Mrs. Fox's carefully laid plans backfire in the ensuing melee as the Earl does his evil best to outmaneuver her, all written with an impressive command of idiom, capturing the obsequious nature of the era in all its self-congratulatory grandeur.

Sometimes compared to Dangerous Liaisons, this novel enjoys much of the scandalous flavor of that captivating contest of wits, but with a more menacing villain, pitch-perfect narrative, an enthralling account of perversity and self-indulgence. In this ultimate battle of the sexes, our Eve is determined to wrest her soul from the perfidious Adam or die trying. If A Factory of Cunning isnít optioned for a movie, Iíll eat my senior citizens discount card.



Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at www.curledup.com. © Luan Gaines, 2005

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