Sedition, Sex and a Music Room Revolution
It is perhaps not surprising that an author who admits to parking on yellow lines and relishes the memory of wearing pink to her graduation has produced, in Sedition, a seductive, dark, and highly unconventional story about five marriageable young ladies learning to play the piano.
From the first scene, Katherine Grant’s heroine, Alathea Sawneyford, shows she is far from the reserved, virginal young lady the reader might expect to meet in a novel set in London in the 1790s. Instead she is just the kind of girl to overturn the best-laid plans of her father and his three friends. Between them these four successful businessmen have five daughters to marry off and, snug in the warmth of their favourite coffee house, they decide to launch their girls at the wealthy bachelors of London by means of a pianoforte concert. It is the perfect stage to show their girls and advertise their talents and their looks – such as they are.
Why “such as they are”? Because the young ladies of Sedition are never viewed through rose-tinted glasses. Instead we read that:
“…when they sang, the pleasure in their eyes, the stretching of their necks and the rise and fall of silk-covered breasts softened their defects. This softening was particularly necessary for Everina, whose teeth had been expensively and unsubtly replaced when her real ones became painful and discolored. But Everina was not alone in needing help. No amount of ribbon or skill could fatten Marianne’s disappointing hair, and although it would probably do no good, Harriet Frogmorton…was right to clip her nose with a clothespin every night since its roundness spoiled an otherwise lively face atop a neat, trim body. Of the other two Georgiana Brass’s defects were difficult to pinpoint – since she had given up eating, it was difficult to see much of her at all – and Alathea Sawneyford was, as Mrs Frogmorton and Mrs Drigg often remarked, simply an astonishment….Yet one thing was certain: men saw Alathea and wanted her, as men eating eggs want salt.”
Marriage is the fathers’ sole aim, but soon there is another plot underway concerning the five girls. Tobias Drigg, the father tasked with finding a pianoforte and a tutor for the girls, unwittingly offends the piano shop owner, Mr Cantabile and his hair-lipped daughter Annie. In revenge, Cantabile enters into an agreement with the piano teacher, Monsieur Belladroit: he will relieve each of the five girls of her virginity before the concert date arrives. But when Annie Cantabile and Alathea fall in love and Belladroit’s plan becomes known, the five girls seize their chance to master much more than the pianoforte and ultimately deliver a concert that fashionable London will never forget.
The inspiration for Sedition was a tiny detail that Grant came across when reading Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire by Amanda Foreman where, against a background of revolution, Georgiana’s everyday life of shopping, gossip and domestic concerns continues apparently unaffected by the turmoil all around. In Sedition, the backdrop is post-revolutionary France and although this is a story set almost exclusively in the music room or the dark halls of Alathea’s home, the menace of uncertain times haunts the characters’ lives and their story. Life is short, often unkind and sometimes violent. Harriet wears shoes removed from a victim of the guillotine, and the inventive Monsieur Belladroit is a fugitive from revolution-torn France.
The novel is Grant’s first foray into the world of historical fiction for adults, but as K.M. Grant she is the children’s author of several novels including the De Granville Trilogy and the Perfect Fire Trilogy, two series set in the time of Richard the Lionheart. Grant describes writing for adults as ‘differently challenging’ but says the main thing for her was the opportunity to ‘let rip’. There is no doubt that the ‘sheer bawdiness’ of Sedition makes it a firmly adult read and the story includes elements of sexual violence that will not be to every reader’s taste.
Happily, the quality of the writing, the richness of description and the light comic touches, particularly in the dialogue, combine to make an entertaining novel, where the author’s love of music informs and enhances her twisting tale. Before she chose her title, Grant thought of the novel as “the piano book” and has, as the girls do in the story, learned the aria and thirty variations of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. This was research in its most practical form: “I needed to feel them under my fingers and to see how Monsieur and the girls might physically interact at the keyboard,” she explains.
As the novel came to fruition, Grant’s “piano book” became Sedition, a title it well merits. And with the complex relationships it portrays, and the no-holds-barred approach to sex and violence, the novel itself becomes a quiet rebellion, or act of sedition, against the expectations of the genre and the period she has chosen to work in. Her tone is light, even when her subject matter is darkest. But, at the risk of being fanciful, if books could be people, and it were possible to imagine a raft of novels set in late-Georgian London attending a graduation ceremony, then Sedition would most certainly be the one dressed in pink.
About the contributor: Kate Braithwaite is a writer and historical fiction lover, originally from the UK but now based in Pennyslvania. She writes reviews and articles for the Historical Novel Society and a humorous language blog about American and British English at www.transatlantictranslator.wordpress.com
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Posted by Claire Morris