Essay

Gossip Guy

Sophie Gee unlocks the story behind Alexander Pope’s most famous poem.

Sophie Gee interviewed by Alice Boone
Early in Sophie Gee’s funny, sometimes sexy new novel The Scandal of the Season (Scribner), Alexander Pope meets with his publisher, Jacob Tonson. The year is 1711: Pope’s pastoral poems have had some success, but Tonson wants him to try something new—something set in the city, something with intrigue and excitement. “Your first poems were striking in one so young,” says Tonson, “but now it is time to show a more ingenious talent.”

The Scandal of the Season concerns the real-life affair between Robert, Lord Petre, and a social climber named Arabella Fermor, and how the equally ambitious Pope turned gossip about the affair into the mock-epic The Rape of the Lock. The title refers to the odd symbolic gesture of Lord Petre removing a lock of Arabella’s hair to publicly shame her. It also displays Pope’s talent for inflating a small, petty event into the language of epic poetry. This satire of social mores in the style of a revered poetic form was the innovation Pope’s publisher was looking for.

Gee, an assistant professor of English at Princeton, talked recently about Pope the imitator and innovator, the chattering world of 18th-century London, and imagining another author’s moments of inspiration.


Alice Boone: There are so many wonderful scenes of reading in the book: Rochester is read for seduction, Milton for inspiration. What kind of reader do you think Pope was? How did you write those scenes of reading?

Sophie Gee: When you’re engaged in a creative endeavor, what you’re really trying to do is take something away from the thing that you’re reading—almost trying to destroy it. One of the themes I’m trying to get at in my novel is the sense in which Pope—coming after Milton, Rochester, and Homer—is trying to destroy his antecedents, trying to take over from them. There’s much evidence that Pope is a fantastic imitator of poets—his imitations of poets, his translations, his versions of Chaucer, and all of his other poetry with that dense tapestry of allusions—but always, I think, with an eye to victory.

I love the part in your novel where Pope names the poem and decides it has to be the “blank of blank,” because it reminds me of how good he is with filling in those blanks. In your novel, we see him come up with the “cave of spleen” from Canto IV, but there ARE so many other good ones. I made a list: “the conquering force of unresisted steel,” “the expressive emblem of their softer power”. . . .

What I hadn’t figured out until you reeled off that list is that Pope is a master of the genitive. What he, as a classicist, understands is something that we’ve lost sight of in English, namely that the word “of” can be doing a lot of different things at once.

One of the most exciting parts of The Rape of the Lock is when Belinda heads up the Thames on the boat and the sylphs are playing around the sails and blowing on the sails. What I love about it is, if you had a videotape of that scene in real life, obviously it’s not the sylphs, it’s the breeze that’s blowing on the sails. But he manages to give the breeze a kind of translucid materiality, and the sylphs occupy the space of wind. What Pope does that’s very innovative is to assign a kind of animate spirit to inanimate materialism. The sylphs are the obvious way that he does that, but he does it less obviously with the slipper, the bell, and the things on the dressing table. What Pope is giving us is a personified inanimate world, and that explains for me why a poem that’s really rather stiff and not very lively in terms of the quantity of animation nonetheless feels very volatile and fluid and shifting.

If you went through The Rape of the Lock and picked out verbs that had to do with movement, with change, there would be an enormous number of them. I’m thinking of “they shift the moving Toyshop of their Heart,” but there are others. What’s amazing about it is that so easily that could have been an image of clockwork motion, something mechanical, but instead he chooses “shift” and “moving,” both of which already have such a resonance beyond the mechanical—“moving” having emotional content as much as motor content. So he transforms movement into something almost psychological. It almost gives it a psychological narrative.

Where does Arabella come from?

There’s not much information about her. We know she was a celebrated beauty, that she was mentioned in a couple of publications of the period in the years before The Rape of the Lock was composed. We know that she was of moderate fortune, and ended up marrying a guy called Francis Perkins, but beyond that we don’t have any sense of her character at all, except for a couple of tiny glimpses that we get of her in Martha and Teresa Blount’s letters, where they seem to think of her as a kind of flirty good-time girl.

When I started writing the Arabella character, she was much more whimsical and hurt. She was much more the wounded party—much more like Eloisa, someone who’d been stung by her dealings with the male sex and whose soul was bleeding. Then I realized that not only was that not a very interesting character from the point of view of the novel, but also that there’s a reason that The Rape of the Lock is so different from Eloisa to Abelard. Arabella is a creature of her world: she’s someone who thinks she’s strong enough to withstand the rigors of the London social world, and she finds out that she’s not. It seems to me that the poem, too, deals in a great deal of imagery of frailty and fragility. This is a world where you have to have a hard enameled surface, but it can be cracked with surprising ease.

I see Arabella and Alexander Pope as being much more similar than we think, which is to say that they’re both very ambitious characters who understand incompletely what the consequences of ambition are going to be.

You’re more sympathetic to the way Pope sees women than others have been.

I’m not sure in a court of law I would want to defend Pope’s niceness, but for the purpose of writing a novel about him, it was sort of necessary to have a sympathetic appeal. Partly, I wanted to suggest that even though 18th-century literature seems stiff and forbidding, the creative impulses behind it were the same as those that generated Renaissance literature, or modernism, or Romanticism. My major source for the women was Valerie Rumbold’s book Women’s Place in Pope’s World, and I think she is brilliant on the subject.

My sense is that Pope was sympathetic to women. At the same time, or shortly after he wrote The Rape of the Lock, he wrote Eloisa to Abelard, which is one of the most imaginatively empathetic accounts of female emotional distress that anyone’s ever written, and he inhabits that mind with incredibly powerful feeling, including imagining what female erotic desire feels like. I think he does that in Eloisa to Abelard and to some extent in The Rape of the Lock. That, to me, suggests a very real capacity, imaginatively, to inhabit women.

But Teresa Blount is a problematic character. The reality is that she was probably not a very interesting woman of only moderate intelligence.

Oh, but Martha’s the one who comes off so well in your book.

The reason is that she’s based on my sister, who is my dearest friend, so it was wonderful to get to write that character. But you know, when you read Pope’s letters to Martha Blount and the lyrics to Martha and Teresa Blount, there’s a real identification. I don’t really buy Pope as a baddie. Not to mention the fact that he actually intervened on behalf of women on a number of occasions.

There are those lines in Epistle to a Lady on the Character of Women where he talks about how easy it is to write about women: “Pictures like these, dear Madam, to design, / Asks no firm hand, and no unerring line; / Some wand'ring touches, some reflected light / Some flying stroke alone can hit ’em right. . . .”

You can see in those lines so many other important moments in Pope. The poem begins, “Most women have no characters at all. / Matter too soft a lasting mark to bear,” which I’ve always thought was such a brilliant line because he’s punning on the idea of female softness. It’s supposed to be a sympathetic quality, and he converts it to a waxy malleability that can’t quite keep its shape, it can’t bear a lasting mark. “Asks no firm hand, and no unerring line” and then the “wand'ring touches” of light makes me think of the nymphs and sylphs again. And then, Pope’s whole sense of what a picture is is so interesting, too. The Rape of the Lock is a sort of surface confection; it happens on the picture plane, it’s not a deep interior presentation, and yet he’s always trying to figure ways of animating surface so that it acquires depth or profundity.

I can see you talking now about Pope the writer. I wondered about the scenes of him writing.

The classic composition scene in my book is when they’re on the river, and Pope gets the idea for that passage in The Rape of the Lock that I mentioned a moment ago. I was trying to get at how you get from an idea to something on the page—which is deeply perplexing. The way Pope describes it is that the imagination sort of hoards images, tries to grab hold of them and find them again later. Wordsworth, when he talks about “emotion recollected in tranquility,” is getting at a similar idea. What the writer is always trying to do is retain the moment of vivid apprehension but then be able to reconstruct it with the kind of care that you need for it to hold its shape. So when I was writing the river scene, I wanted to show Pope perceiving things in reality and then making the jump to understand that they could become creative ideas.

That jump is a very delicate thing—you can so easily lose it. What a writer is always looking for is the thing that they can grab hold of and keep so they won’t forget it. In my creative life, I’m constantly storing up little triggers that will make me remember things vividly after the event. I’ll often go home after a day out and I’ll know that there are ten things that I need to remember and I’ll go through the triggers I had to make me remember them, write them down, and try to reconstruct the emotions that surrounded the thing that I saw.

So are you imagining Pope the compositor as something like yourself?

Yes, I suppose my assumption was that Pope must be exactly like me. [Laughs] The real answer to that question is, obviously he’s not, but I think all writers struggle with that question of how do you get from something that you can only glimpse, even though it’s very vivid and very real, to something that you can see in its whole but threatens to deteriorate into something lifeless or plastic.

Tell me about the research you did to animate some of the historical figures in The Scandal of the Season. Jacob Tonson, his publisher, and his friend Charles Jervas are two good ones.

They’re both figures that we don’t know very much about, so to be honest, the personalities I gave them were roughly based on a couple of friends of mine who seemed to fit the bill. I was interested in both of them as formative figures in Pope’s character in the novel and also in real life. I wanted Jervas to be a figure who gave Pope a perception of sophistication that would get him from being a country guy without a finely tuned social ear to a guy who could write The Rape of the Lock, which relies on a very nuanced understanding of how society works. And I wanted Tonson to be a figure who could get Pope from being a youthful enthusiast of a poet to someone who was thinking about a marketplace. Part of what’s important about Pope is that he’s not sitting around being a gentleman scholar. He’s a guy who understands the market, who writes for the market, and who understands what it means to be a professional writer and does it. He happens to be one of the great English poets, but his stuff’s very commercial.
Originally Published: November 28, 2007

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Alice Boone is a graduate student in the English department at Columbia University.

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