Princeton professor Gee’s lively, highly literate debut explores the historical figures and events satirized in Alexander Pope’s “The Rape of the Lock.”
The uneasy peace of Queen Anne’s reign—marred by growing Whig-Tory animosity, anti-Catholic bias and stray pockets of rebellious Jacobites hoping to restore the deposed Catholic James II to the now Protestant throne—is the backdrop for high society frolics. Thanks to a small, growing literary reputation, Pope, though born into the Catholic merchant class and crippled by tuberculosis, gets to spend the 1711 social season in London, the guest of a fashionable portrait painter. Also in town are the Blount sisters, looking for marital matches despite their Catholicism and lack of money. Pope thinks he is in love with the charming Teresa but comes to share a deeper connection with her sister Martha. Also husband-hunting is the Blounts’ wealthier, flashier cousin Arabella Fermor, whom Teresa unsuccessfully tries to emulate. For all her haughty demeanor, Arabella remains an innocent in love until she falls passionately for Robert, Lord Petre, a rich Catholic aristocrat. Robert falls equally hard for Arabella. Carrying on a semi-secret affair, Arabella assumes she is about to become Robert’s wife and thus a baroness. But Robert has also mixed himself up in an ill-conceived Jacobite plot. When his parents learn he has risked the family’s reputation, they require him to give up not only his political intriguing but also Arabella. He is quickly affianced to a less attractive but wealthier heiress. Robert cannot bring himself to tell Arabella, but he accepts a silly dare to cut off a lock of her hair at a party. Arabella is humiliated, especially when she discovers his engagement, but then shows unexpected depth of character. Meanwhile, Pope is asked to write a satire to make light of the incident, thus diffusing hostility between the two prominent families. The poem launches Pope’s career.
Delightfully gossipy, psychologically insightful and historically fascinating.