Sunday, January 20, 2008

The Backstory of the Lock

This woman had a good idea, especially for readers who are into 18th century literature. Since I've been doing some research on the American naval hero John Paul Jones, I've regained some perspective on the 18th century -- an era I don't think I've given much thought since junior high history class. I studied Alexander Pope's Rape of the Lock in college, but I've mostly forgotten about it.

Professor Sophie Gee, who is teaching at Princeton University, decided to write about the story of what led up to the tale described in the epic poem. Her debut novel, The Scandal of the Season, was published last year by Scribner. In a release that appeared on Princeton's Web site, she explained how she came to write about the real people who were the basis of Pope's mock-epic. Pope came to London as a poor aspiring writer and is able to insinuate himself in the world of the characters of the Rape.

"As a scholar you try never to jump from fact to fiction," Gee said. "At first I was extremely uncomfortable about it, but then I realized that what I was doing was giving a psychologically compelling account of what we do know, putting in feelings along with historical facts."

She's conscious of the danger of a professor creating fiction out of real people. One of Gee's challenges was to write the scene in which Pope and Swift meet for the first time, according to the release. She knew they had met in London during the period in which the novel is set, so she imagined the rendezvous at the opera, penning a scene in which the young Pope approaches Swift as he scoffs at the vanity of some fellow clergy members in the audience. The two writers later became great friends.

"It was thrilling to have a chance to inhabit a historical moment like that, because it was such a momentous literary encounter," she said.

But she has received strong reviews. The New York Times Book Review described it as "a clever and inviting piece of critical biography masquerading as a light comedy of manners."

In her teaching she is able to make the archaic references of 18th century literature accessible to today's teen agers and young twenty-somethings. For example, she juxtaposes the great satirist Jonathan Swift with the premier satirists of today: Trey and Matt of South Park fame.

I can tell I'd like this woman. She has always wanted to be a writer, she recognizes that a writer needs to be a strong reader, and she loves Irish literature. I'd enjoy spending a pleasant pub conversation with professor Gee!

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