Book Review: Sedition: A Novel

sedition katherine grantEvery now and then, a book comes along that has all the right ingredients to draw us in and catch our imagination. This is infinitely more difficult than it sounds, especially given so many distractions we’re faced with in our world today, and particularly when the story is set in a very popular time and place of historical fiction: Georgian London. ‘Sedition‘, Katharine Grant’s first adult novel after several successful children’s books, is just such a book. And, while it does check off most of the aspects that we expect and enjoy with this sub-genre, it is also a carefully constructed narrative that employs restraint in trying to avoid the usual clichés, anachronisms and extravagances that can easily turn the story into a caricature of the many masterpieces written of and in those times.

But, then, somehow, somewhere, it tries to do too much, to say too much, and falls just short of its own goals, which I will circle back to shortly. Let me say upfront that it definitely achieved quite a few of its goals very well, probably because it crammed in so much. So, I do recommend it as an entertaining read in the historical fiction genre — an absolute page-turner with very few dull moments. You might also consider listening to Bach’s Goldberg Variations as you read since it is one of the main pieces of music in the story. Glenn Gould’s 1955 version is one of the best out there.

Aside: If you’re the sort who sniffs at this genre, just read Hilary Mantel’s excellent essay about it. [Mantel, of course, has written two Booker-winning historical fiction books, ‘Wolf Hall‘ and ‘Bring Up the Bodies‘].

Let’s start with a brief non-spoiler story summary: Four new-money City men (Drigg, Brass, Frogmorton, Sawneyford) in 18th century England are anxious to get their five daughters (Marianne, Everina, Georgiana, Harriet, Alathea) married off to titled men. Sitting around in a coffeehouse, they come up with a plan to present the girls in a concert, playing the then-new pianoforte (over the more commonly-used harpsichord) so that they might attract marriage proposals from the right kind of men: titled aristocrats. And the fun and games begin. They buy a pianoforte from a cranky Italian immigrant, Cantabile, and his daughter, Annie, then hire his recommended rake of a French piano tutor, Belladroit, and order the mothers and daughters to get ready for the big day. Complications arise in how the tutor sets about to seduce and deflower his virginal students and how they decide to turn the tables through their own little rebellion — hence the “sedition” of the story’s title. There are other important twists in the plot with a couple of problematic relationships that I won’t give away here. And, many themes have been addressed, ranging from many kinds of love (e.g. unrequited, forbidden, first, paid for, incestuous, etc.), gender politics, class politics (e.g. new vs old money, immigrants, serving classes, etc.), family politics (e.g. sibling rivalry, mother-daughter rivalry, filial duty, etc.), power (from money, beauty, music, titles, detachment, silence or sex) and so on.

Right from the start, the one aspect that makes the book absolutely enjoyable throughout is the richly-drawn physical detailing of Georgian London. In Dickensian style (though, of course, he was a Victorian), Grant gives us vividly cinematic streets, buildings, homes, coffeehouses, people — in all their gilded, grimy, muddy or dusty glory. Here’s an example:

Out into the mud, he grinds the barrow through sludge and bumps it over knobbles of frozen dung. The February cloud is low and dense. Horses are lost in clammy steam. Urchins use fresh droppings to warm their hands, poor sods. It’s the usual struggle through Cheapside — God alive, why do women have to gossip in gaggles? They part as soon as they recognize him. Bad luck to tough the hangman. Bad luck to touch his barrow. He pushes on through Poultry. Nothing at the Bank, but a hubbub at the top of Threadneedle Street. The hangman hoists his barrow onto the wooden pavement and heads for the crowd. As he reaches the Virginia and Baltick coffeehouse (formerly the Virginia and Maryland), a man barges into him, swears, then kicks the coffeehouse’s stout oak door until it opens. The man vanishes in a fecal fug and a girl emerges.

The descriptions of piano-playing are also done masterfully, particularly those with Alathea and Annie. And, of course, during the lessons and the tragicomic final concert scene. Not only does Grant play the piano herself, but she also practiced Bach’s Goldberg Variations, which is the main piece of music for the concert, throughout the writing of the book.

She began to merge Mozart with something of her own and Mozart vanished into music never yet heard in a drawing room, or in the promenade gardens, or at a court amusement. This music recognized the sol-fa but would not settle in the key. Transitions were not orderly, form was not followed. Nor could the music Annie created be labeled sonata, rondo, prelude, or bagatelle. It was a kind of spillage; it spilled out and retreated and spilled again. It was not an uncontrolled spillage. Every note, every unnatural (to Monsieur’s ear) cadence, every surge and eddy was choreographed to bear witness to some truth that Monsieur could barely grasp. He did not care for the harmony: it was the control and choreography that touched his heart. Annie’s music was an uncomfortable wave, but it never crashed. Whether he liked it or not, it drew Monsieur into a swell. Had Herr Haydn heard the music, he would have shaken his head. Herr Haydn would had a point. So did Annie.

Annie, this piano-maker’s piano-playing daughter, is afflicted with a terrible disfigurement: a hare-lip. Grant’s descriptions of the impact of this disfigurement is very well-portrayed through Annie’s everyday interactions, particularly with her own parents, and avoids pithy sentimentality. Here’s an example of Annie with her sick mother (the scenes with her father, her childhood crush and her lover are even more telling and interesting, but, again, I want to avoid spoilers):

“We’re blessings to each other.” Mrs Cantabile smiled the sweet smile Annie should have inherited. Annie pressed her cheek against her mother’s as she had done since she was a little girl. It was an accommodation they had come to: an acceptable kiss. It made Annie want to howl.

In fact, all the daughters have some affliction or other. These — false teeth, anorexia, bad breath, prominent nose, etc. — are all used fully to excellent comical effect as well as to explain certain behaviors and drive the plot forward.

Unlike certain famous books that were written during the time that this one is set in, Grant does not ignore the larger socio-historical issues surrounding her main story — e.g. the French Revolution across the sea, slavery, new money’s influences, the growing rate of immigration to the Americas, etc. — and weaves them all into plot points and counter-points. One very enjoyable example is where one of the self-absorbed daughters shows off her beautiful French shoes with a stubborn blood stain because it previously belonged to a Parisian debutante who had been executed. Carefully-researched and employed historical details like that throughout the story give it some exquisitely rich layers.

The tableau scenes between the daughters and mothers and between the daughters and the tutor during their one-on-one lessons are funny, well-paced and, rather obviously, a deliciously modernized take on Austen. That said, at times, the daughters (all except Alathea and Annie — see below) come across as such ninnies that it does get a bit tiring. While it is understandable that they have led sheltered, privileged lives with a limited view of the world (but, of course, a vast appetite for all that it offers them), some of the things that come out of their mouths do rather stretch credulity. For example, about two-thirds of the way through the book, when the daughters realize that they’re all being played by their tutor, four of them discuss their sexual experiences with him as giving them a “fizziness”. Likely, Grant has done her research on whether this word was in use at the time, so it’s not the language aspect that grates. It’s the fact that this entire conversation on “fizziness” goes on for several pages and gets beyond inanely boring very quickly.

To be fair, two of the daughters, motherless Alathea and piano-maker’s Annie, are presented with much greater care. In an interview, Grant said, of Alathea and Annie:

Alathea was the first character that came to me, but she developed over time. She embodies all the things I find difficult, like detachment and silence, these very powerful female attributes that we don’t often explore. It seemed to me that she was a girl with this tremendous power of detachment, which allows her to do almost anything she wants.

(Annie) has learnt the art of acceptance. She doesn’t leave the house, she doesn’t rail against her father, she just immerses herself in her music.

So they are two lonely girls who don’t live alone, and who, to many people, lead very normal lives, even though they don’t.

Their relationship comes together very naturally through their common love for music. And, it is also handled very skillfully. Of this, Grant said:

… Alathea’s relationship with Annie came about through music; it is very rare to meet someone and find they are instantly on your wavelength. In music that is hugely powerful, when you meet someone with whom you can play, it creates a very strong, immediate bond. There didn’t need to be any winding up in their relationship  — once they played together, that was it, they knew.

The complicated relationship between the motherless Alathea and her father is dark, ambiguously gray and, thankfully, does not veer into caricaturing, as the ones between the piano tutor, Belladroit, and his students do sometimes.

The pièce de résistance, of course, is the grand climax — the concert scene — where all the main characters come together and we witness not only some of the most breathtaking piano-playing but also the priceless reactions of each character and their audience. The comical timing and the thorough word-painting of every critical detail are a delight to read and reread. And, the painstaking descriptions of the daughters’ clothes and appearances are definitely fun.

At the end, after the climactic concert scene, the ceremonial burning of the pianoforte, with all the fathers present, seems a bit unnecessary and, again, stretching believability. Also, Grant ties up all loose ends, giving us glimpses into the inevitable futures of each daughter. On the one hand, this shows a writer in complete control of her characters — giving us all the backstories and motivations behind their actions and behaviors throughout, including where and how they end up. On the other hand, it all seems too neat and unreal as well — if only people in real life could be so easily explained. You almost wish for some inexplicable acts or behaviors, some messiness that is left to the imagination of the readers. But, this may well be a matter of subjective preference as there are many readers who might complain if that had been the case.

Let me circle back to the assertion at the beginning of this review that the book tries to do too much and say too much. Grant has given us entertainment and a skillful blending of historical fact and conjecture — enough to keep us engaged and grounded in the world she has created. And, the vicarious experience of that world does not make us nostalgic for the past but reminds us of its particular morality and prejudices. In this, Grant has mindfully negotiated, not avoided, the obscenity of the past, as Hilary Mantel has described:

A relation of past events brings you up against events and mentalities that, should you choose to describe them, would bring you to the borders of what your readers could bear. The danger you have to negotiate is not the dimpled coyness of the past – it is its obscenity.

That said, given the many themes and historical contexts, it is inevitable that, with a book this length, there is some short-changing. Yes, there are several brilliant moments when Grant pulls off that difficult balancing act of bringing both socio-historical commentary and comedy of manners narrative styles together seamlessly. But, this is not sustainable for the duration of the book so that it often veers unevenly into one direction more than the other. Just as it does, also, with the language itself — sometimes indulging in the extravagance of everyday speech of that time and, sometimes, keeping it plain and paced — whether that is out of a lack of confidence in taking on those speech forms or a desire to attract and engage the average reader, I’m not sure. I belong to the group of readers who enjoy characters speaking in the patterns and patois of their times — it creates a more capacious world for us to imagine and inhabit as we read. It is, of course, a difficult skill to master as A S Byatt has said when explaining how she spent a lot of time reading literature from Victorian times when writing her own Booker-winning historical novel, ‘Possession‘.

Still, ‘Sedition‘ is the kind of storytelling that, when you finish reading, makes you wish there was a continuation — perhaps even a series on TV. The narrative definitely fits an episodic arc structure. Although, a part of me shudders to think how TV people might butcher the story with added sensationalism, squalor, bawdiness, vulgarity, sex and prurience. Rather, let’s hope that Grant writes a sequel or prequel (there’s enough interesting backstory on the father-mother couples to spin out a prequel on each). And, she has enough of her own family history to mine from, it seems, and give us more original stories rather than resorting to yet another tired retelling of an Austen or Heyer novel. You can hear more about this in her own words in this 2-minute audio.

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