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An enervating, long-winded and scrambled tale taking place in 18th century England in the days when ""radical"" agitation for Parliamentary reform alarmed the upper class and heads of government--since their equal numbers in France were losing their heads in the revolution. A promising period for adventure/romance, but the author has scuttled any potential pep with a wash of tepid characters and splayed out plot. The story opens with an S-M bedpost-and-horsewhip gala--a false come on for the prurient-minded; from then on, it's clean and boring rather than dirty and boring. Polly Beale, orphaned daughter of a London bookseller and owner of personally autographed copies of the opi of Mary Wollstonecraft, has some narrow escapes. First, there are the thugs at her uncle's garbagy tavern; then she's abducted by slimy Lord Crome and taken to a room at Wapling House, owned by equally rotten Henry Main. But then the Wapling's steward, Charles Bishop, steps in for rescue, and finds Polly a place as a downstairs maid. Charles is more than mere steward, however; he is about to spy for Garfield Devenish, who's working on the Home Secretary's project to expose the ""seditious"" radicals, both intellectuals and workingmen who, via meetings, correspondence and pamphlets, are extolling the Rights of Man. A look at Polly's library--as well as accompanying her to London meetings--convinces Charles that Polly's in the thick. After the arrest of Polly's friend Tom Hardy (there are several real personages featured), Polly is also briefly detained--and she knows Charles is a spy. Back at Wapling, there's a blither of secret notes, spying, comeuppances and pairings amongst the toffs and subordinates--all of which gets too tiresome and circuitous to follow. At the last, Polly and Charles (who never seems to really absorb the Rights of Man message) mingle their tiny psyches. Dull.

Pub Date: June 1st, 1986
Publisher: Century Hutchinson--dist. by David & Charles