I love a bit of historical fiction, particularly works that focus on slightly more obscure, less 'mainstream' events and characters. It's always interesting to see the way different authors fuse fact and fiction together to build their stories. I saw this beautiful hardback edition in my local library and picked it up. I've briefly studied the Jacobites, but it was never something I specialised in or was particularly interested in, however I am acquainted with the work of Alexander Pope, and as soon as I read his name I knew I would have to read it.

I'm going to say now that whilst I wasn't extremely disappointed with this book, I definitely wasn't wowed either. For a debut novel this is certainly impressive, and I definitely would pick up some more of Sophie Gee's work, but for me there was just something missing from this.


Plot: This is a novel about risk and dangerous liaisons in a time of Jacobite plots and Popish fears, when marriage was a market, and sex was a temptation fraught with danger. Arabella Fermor is in need of a rich husband, but knows that girls have been ruined by risking an affair like the one she contemplates with the charming, enigmatic nobleman Robert Petre; a man who is flirting with a Jacobite plot against Queen Anne at the risk of being hung were he ever to be caught. Watching the pair with a beady eye is an outsider, a cripple, destined to become the genius of his age - the poet Alexander Pope. It is a witty, modern love-story - set in 1711. 

Helpfully, there is an Afterword at the back of the book that explains what happened with each of the characters in reality. Gee has based her novel on Alexander Pope's most famous work 'The Rape of the Lock', which in turn was based on the seduction of Arabella Fermor by Lord Robert Petre. The 1714 version sold 3,000 copies in the first week after it was printed, and he had been immortalised as the first writer in English history to become independently wealthy from sales of his own work. In the poem, Arabella's name was changed to Belinda, as at the time the entire affair was covered up because of the level of scandal it would have caused had it ever been acknowledged publicly. I'm not going to go too much into what ends up happening between her and Petre, just because I don't want to spoil it for anyone, but this is basically all you need to be aware of before reading!

I'm not going to bore anyone by droning on about the entire situation because no one wants to read that! All you need to know to be up to speed with what's going on in this novel is that the Jacobite Rebellion was caused by supporters of King James VII of Scotland and II of England. King James was a Roman Catholic, and was replaced by his daughter, Queen Anne, and her husband, William of Orange, in order for Protestantism to dominate once again. Lord Petre is very much in support of the rebellion, and we see a lot of the tension through the people he is associated with and the plot he is involved with. We also see some of the history through Alexander's conversations with his father: as practising Catholics who were forced to flee as the monarchy changed and practice their faith in secret, Alexander's family aren't too keen on him spending time in London.

The thing with this novel is that there isn't exactly a solid plot, and what starts out seeming like a murder mystery in the prologue then turns into a sort of triangle between Alexander Pope and sisters Teresa and Martha, which in turn becomes a wider story involving Arabella and Lord Petre. I really appreciate Gee's ambition; she tells the story about how Pope came to write 'The Rape of the Lock' really well, and once I'd finished it this was the story that stayed with me in my mind. However, the Jacobite plots involving Lord Petre and some of the other characters were very different in tone, and I felt that they dragged a bit too much. I wasn't absorbed by any of it, and I think that's because I didn't feel like I identified with any of the characters or their motivations. I don't think I ever really understood why they were so absorbed in the cause; I know why they supported it in theory, but I didn't feel any of their passion or emotion translated through. Because of this, I felt like I had to push myself to get to the end and keep reading when things were dragging a bit too much for me.

Staying on the same vein, I don't think I particularly liked any of the characters, but I'm pretty sure this was a purposeful thing on Gee's part because of how satirical the whole narrative is. You're supposed to see each of their flaws, and there were so many moments where I was cringing at the decisions they were making because it was so obvious that they would live to regret them! Out of everyone, I think Gee portrayed Alexander brilliantly; he was the perfect blend of witty and arrogant, mixed with an insecure and naïve edge. His feelings for Teresa and bond with Martha really emphasise both of these sides to his character, and Gee does a good job at working with the speculation that still exists about his relationship with Martha. It was a nice side story that I actually really enjoyed reading, and I was pleased that Martha became more of a regular feature than her sister, because Teresa irritated me from the moment she first appears. She's portrayed to be one of those characters that always wants more and never appreciates what they actually have.

Lord Petre, in contrast to Alexander, is far more confident and self-assured. He is completely enamoured with Arabella, to the point where you do see a change in the way he behaves as soon as he realises he is attracted to her. However, I feel massively conflicted with the way it ends up playing out, and I feel like it has coloured my opinion of the whole thing. For most of their affair I found that I didn't really buy into it being anything more than just physical and sexual attraction on either side. Then there's this twist at the end that can either be interpreted as a demonstration of how devoted Petre is to the Jacobite cause, the overall lack of emotional attachment between the pair of them, or how much the societal constraints and obligations at the time dictated the way people of the elite thought. I'm still not sure which one I feel is the most likely, but I guess that's something Gee wanted to leave open to interpretation.

Overall Gee's writing style is really nice. She's straightforward, and very clever with the way she engineers situations and sentences. She made me laugh on a couple of occasions, and I like the way she plays with mystery, satire and romance. Because of the nature of the plot, there isn't a lot of closure at the end. I did feel quite deflated simply because there wasn't a strong sense of resolution with any of the characters apart from Alexander and Martha, and it just felt like something was missing. It's not a long novel, but I did have to push myself to get through it, and it definitely felt like it was longer than it actually was, but that is mainly because I just wasn't absorbed by the political stuff. If you're intrigued or interested in the Jacobite era or Alexander Pope I'd definitely recommend checking this out. You might get a lot more from it than I did! However, if you've read this and a few red flags have gone up I'd probably suggest leaving this and looking for something else that you might enjoy more!

Published by Avni Bhagwan