Sophie Gee’s The Scandal of the Season fictionalizes the events that led to the creation of Alexander Pope’s poem The Rape of the Lock. The poem mocks the quarrel that arose between two aristocratic Catholic families in 18th century London after Lord Petre stole a lock of hair from Arabella Fermor, his crush. Gee’s book details Pope’s burgeoning writing career and his friendship with neighbors Martha and Theresa Blount. The Blounts journey to London for the Season, and Pope, in love with Theresa, decides that he needs to go to London as well in order to make progress in his writing. Once in London, the Blounts and Pope become swept up into society. Theresa Blount renews an acquaintance with her cousin, Arabella Fermor, and the entire city watches Arabella’s courtship with Lord Petre. There are Jacobean plots everywhere, and Gee deftly weaves in Petre’s participation with a con man into what ultimately leads him to take a lock of Arabella’s hair. After a few months, Pope returns home, inspired to write The Rape of the Lock.
I didn’t know much about Pope before I read this book. I probably read some of his writing in college but not The Rape of the Lock. I had no idea of the events surrounding the creation of the poem, and now I want to read it. Gee is an English professor at Princeton, and the book is full of details about the people and events of the period. She did a really good job at fictionalizing the events in Pope’s life, and I completely believed that her account could plausibly be what happened between Lord Petre and Arabella. Some of the plot was a little hard to follow. For example, I understood the Jacobean scheme, but I didn’t understand the con that was being played on Lord Petre. I also don’t think I understood exactly why his taking a lock of Arabella’s hair without her permission was so awful. My worst criticism of the book is that I thought all of the characters were fairly unlikeable. Pope, sympathetic sometimes, was often arrogant. Theresa was mean. Martha was…I couldn’t get a read on her character. Arabella was mean as well. Their meanness was one-dimensional at times. Maybe they were really like that. Instead of really feeling vested in characters, I felt like I was watching a scene play out, which was possibly the point. She was trying to depict history after all.
If you have any interest in Alexander Pope or 18th century London, I recommend the book. It was an interesting read.