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Sex and the city in the 18th century

THE Rape of the Lock," Alexander Pope's mock epic comic poem, is really very funny and clever, but college undergraduates who are not English literature majors struggle with the archaic verse and obscure references.

In an effort to show that the 18th century is accessible and sexy, Princeton University Professor Sophy Gee has turned "Rape" into a racy, funny and illuminating novel titled "The Scandal of the Season."

Gee says she often teaches "Rape of the Lock," in which a nobleman, Lord Petre, cuts a lock of hair from a young woman he admires, Arabella Fermor. The real-life incident took place in 1712.

It's the heart of her own comedy of manners that satirizes the modern world's big cities, single girls and the competition for men and fame.

On Saturday, at M on the Bund, Gee discusses her novel, scandalous happenings in 18th-century England and shows us how to appreciate them today.

Q: You are an academic, why did you decide to write fiction?

A: I have taught Alexander Pope's poem "The Rape of the Lock" lots of times to undergraduates, and I really love it and think it's funny and clever, but students find it difficult.

One day I read an excerpt from a letter about the real-life characters behind Pope's story. When I looked more into the tale, it turned out to be very romantic, scandalous and exciting. I realized I had a novel on my hands.

I also wanted to take all the "pain" out of studying the 18th century. The book is meant to feel like a treat, or a holiday. But it was also very important to me that it be historically accurate and scrupulously researched. I think you can tell when something is authentic, even when you don't know the period.

Q: How did you fictionalize the story?

A: I set myself a rule that I couldn't include anything in the novel that I hadn't found somewhere in the archives. I didn't want anything to be completely "made up" - it was very important to me that the book should be as real and true to life as a contemporary work.

So I had to make the story fit around the real circumstances of Alexander Pope's life at the time, the people he was friends with, and the things he was working on.

I had some strokes of good luck. I discovered, for example, that some of the real-life characters who appear in my book had been involved in Jacobite plots and treason - exactly what I needed to give my story a dramatic hook.

But of course, there were big gaps and things that hadn't been documented. Most of the romance between Lord Petre and Arabella Fermor (Petre "rapes" Fermor's lock, the central story in the poem) had to be filled in imaginatively, based on very light evidence in letters and diaries from the time.

This was difficult because I wanted their love affair to have the erotic energy and pleasure of a modern romance, but I wanted it to feel historically authentic. So I looked at erotic drawings and prints from the time as well as erotic literature (which people don't realize was in wide circulation).

I read 18th-century social conduct books, as well as much-less reputable diaries and pamphlets that describe how men and women really behaved towards one another both in public and in private.

But the literary friendships and the story of Pope's personal rise are all true, and I think this is what gives the book its backbone.

Q: What can you find in the book that you can't in the Pope poem?

A: Oh, lots of fun social scenes that feel as though they belong in "Bridget Jones' Diary" rather than an 18th-century poem, not to mention all the sexy bits.

Q: Have you retained some of the poem's satire?

A: Yes, definitely! My novel is a comedy of manners, both about the 18th century and now. It uses the scene of 18th-century London to satirize the modern world of big cities, single girls, competition for men and fame.

Q: Your talk is named "Sex and the City in the 18th Century." How does 18th-century London compare with the city today?

A: Most people's picture of he 18th century is influenced by period dramas - most often adaptations of Jane Austen novels. They see it as a time of formality and strict sexual morality, especially with respect to women.

But my book is actually set a hundred years before Austen was writing, and sexual behavior was a lot more licentious than we imagine.

Whores and call girls were everywhere; it was common to see them even at very grand balls and parties. Men, married or unmarried, were allowed to sleep with more or less whoever they wanted, and even women were much freer than we might suppose. Married women commonly had lovers, and unmarried women often did too.

Restoration comedies depict men and women alike involved in constant sexual intrigue and scandal. The sexual mores of the time in which "Scandal" is set are probably more permissive than those of our own culture.

Of course, venereal disease and unwanted pregnancies were rampant too, even among the upper classes. Hence, why subplots in so many 18th-century novels feature bastard children of the nobility.

Q: Why was the affair between Arabella Fermor and Robert Petre considered such a scandal in those days?

A: Despite the sexual freedom of the period, it would have been deeply shameful for a woman of Fermor's social class to have an affair with a nobleman, and not to receive a marriage proposal. Readers will have to find out from the book if the illicit affair was found out.

Q: Which book has influenced you the most?

A: I'd have to say "Pride and Prejudice." It's a work of comic genius, it tells deep truths, but wears them lightly. It's the model for all the great English comedies of manners that came afterwards. The love story is wonderful, but it's not saccharine.

I don't know how many times I've read it, or in how many different moods. There's always some depth, or layer to the irony that I've never noticed before.


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