A tale set in London in 1794, while aristocrats' heads are
being lopped in Revolutionary France. The title is Sedition. So it's about politics, seditious politics, right?
The story never goes to France, though an emigree music teacher, known mostly as Monsieur, is one of the characters. He is hired by four wealthy city tradesmen to teach their five daughters to play the pianoforte. The fathers plan to host a concert, where their own wealth, and their daughters' looks and musical accomplishments will net five rich, preferably titled, husbands.
So this is Romantic History, right? A light, fun romp through girlish romantic adventures?
A somewhat unromantic note is struck by the fact that Monsieur is also being paid by the spiteful creator of the hired pianoforte the girls practice on. For this second fee, he is required to seduce and deflower each of his pupils. (Cantabile, the musician and craftsman, is a wonderful character, and I can't do justice to him in a short review. Suffice to say, he has his multiple and twisted reasons.)
The book's a Bodice-Ripper, then, eh?
No, not really.
This book continuously surprises, and refuses to be neatly summed up. It's witty, but the wit is ironic and dark. It is about politics, but it's the social 'everything is political' variety that it dissects. It's set in the past, but like all historical novels, it's as much about the present -- though since its scenes and characters are very particular, rather than chosen to be 'representative' of our notion of what 1794 was like, it does an excellent job of bringing the past to grubby, smelly, everyday life.These people refuse to be pigeon-holed every bit as much as their book does.
Most of all, 'Sedition' takes apart, rummages through, turns inside out and upside-down, the idea and the politics of 'Love.' Our culture breathes and swims in 'Love' -- we cannot live without it, we're told. No marriage without it can survive, or be worthwhile, we believe, though this is a very modern notion. Virtually every work of fiction, in whatever medium, must at least gesture to it, almost every song is about it. Love is All You Need. Love Is All.
In this context, Sedition is indeed seditious. Here is love for a craft that surpasses love for any flesh and blood -- or is it human love thwarted and turned aside into a new channel?
Is love always, as Marlowe wrote, 'censured by our eyes' -- or is true love blind? One of the characters has a hare-lip, and has been made to suffer for it, her immense musical talent overlooked and dismissed because of it. She longs for love and acceptance, despairs of ever finding it, and yet does -- but not where she ever imagined she might find it. And does it bring her the promised happiness? Well...
Here is love of money and power -- above all, power. More than one of the characters realises that, in any
human relationship, most power is held by the one who cares least -- or pretends to care least. One of the heroines, Alathea is attracted to seditious, Utopian ideals, and tries hard to achieve
detachment from emotion in her own life. She maintains that an ideal love is one without any attachment to the loved one, or any idea of ownership. The lovers would come together, and part,
freely, without any obligation on either side. This ideal would bring all the comforts of love and acceptance while retaining your own power, your freedom and autonomy. There would be no
jealousy, no pining, no regret.
But Alathea adopts this view as self-protection. So long as she feels no attachment to those who pursue her, she holds the power and can feel safe, despite all. When she finds love, she struggles to maintain this pure, hard armour, Her downfall is that those who love her have no conception of her ideal.
Sedition is a remarkable book which offers beautiful, dancing prose, wit, and lively characters who engage even when not wholly likeable. In fact, one of the book's strengths is that the cold-hearted seducer will suddenly be kind, and the incestuous father loves with a desperate, romantic intensity. It's hard to pin real people down with labels, and it's hard to label these living characters.
Highly recommended. I loved it.