Set in London’s high season of 1711, Gee’s clever take on society’s foibles in pursuit of favor and personal aggrandizement has at its core the budding young poet, Alexander Pope. Hampered by a fragile constitution and bent back, Pope has few aspirations in his personal life other than a crush on a young local beauty and a yearning to be appreciated as a skilled man of letters.
To that end, Pope follows his friends, the sisters Teresa and Martha Blount, on their journey from the country to London, hoping to make the contacts that will establish his career. The sisters Blount, with dwindling family fortunes, hope to make advantageous matches before word spreads of their lack of dowry, the lovely Teresa flattered by Pope’s attentions but with her eye on a better prize, a fine gentleman of means.
The seasons defined by precise ritual, romance and intrigue are rife, relationships played out as though on a stage as the enthusiastic party-goers participate in masked balls and afternoon teas, evening salons and hunting expeditions. Alexander takes his clues from the gentlemen of quality who surround him, aping their clever repartee in hopes that Teresa will favor him. Pope remains on the fringes of this society until a unique opportunity arises, a scandalous affair that inspires Alexander’s publication of his timely and immensely popular The Rape of the Lock.
Although there is an underlying political intrigue, the animated dialog of genteel society sufficiently reflects the importance of place and class, or the lack thereof, and one’s aspirations for the future. Behind the scenes, the Jacobites hatch a plot to return Catholic James III, exiled in France, to the throne. The plan is complicated, eventually doomed by those who would assassinate Protestant Queen Anne, the Catholic-Protestant division an endemic problem in England.
The political drama is merely icing on Gee’s party cake, the crux of the novel the two unlikely lovers who capture the imagination of their peers. A relative of the Blounts, Arabella Fermor, the most beautiful creature in London, precipitously embarks on an affair with Baron Robert Petre, a handsome, vital man clandestinely involved in the Jacobite scheme.
The forbidden romance the talk of London, the lovers’ dalliance flies in the face of convention. Bell is an inappropriate match: “Where there is no fortune, there can be no persuasion.” If Petre hopes to keep his title and fortune, he must walk away from his beloved and bow to the superior decisions of family.
Inspired by the lover’s tragedy and rebuffed by Teresa, Pope accomplishes his goal, immortalizing love in the face of filial duty. Perfectly capturing the frivolity of the London season, with its crisp dialog and the exacting mating rituals of young women in search of advantageous matches, the novel appears more a delightful confection than political drama. In reality, this is deadly serious business, fortunes and futures at stake, a lesson Arabella and Robert learn all too well.