Book review: Sedition, by Katie Grant

You will be seduced as surely as Katie Grant’s young ladies in this masterpiece of salacious wit, promises Tom Adair

You will be seduced as surely as Katie Grant’s young ladies in this masterpiece of salacious wit, promises Tom Adair

THIS is one of those precious novels. The kind that bookworms burrow inside to devour with relish from cover to cover. The kind you’ll secrete behind all the other books on your shelves in case friends steal it and somehow “forget” to give it back. The kind from which you’ll read chosen snippets to your offspring when they’re old enough. An induction into the magical unruliness of words. Not a dull or superfluous page.

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Sedition incubates, in its title, the promise of trouble, of disturbance, but none of its coming memorability. Set in 1794 in the heart of London, it relates a scene of privilege, of plenty. Meanwhile, across the English Channel the rabid French are slicing and dicing their aristocracy into morsels, feeding the masses a nouvelle cuisine of revenge served cold.

While the novel refers to the savage “Frenchies”, Katharine Grant’s book, (her first for adults: she has published nine books for younger readers) concerns itself with social introspection, obsession and gossip among English folk keen to marry off their daughters to the silken sons of nobility.

Their girls, it seems, though educated, need polish – as musicians. The harpsichord is passé. The pianoforte is the rage. The fathers of five young women produce a plan to acquire a piano, and with it the services of a teacher. They find Vittorio Cantabile, a dealer and repairer, whose daughter, Annie, plays like an angel and also teaches. Because of a ghastly facial disfigurement her services, though, are spurned.

Enter Claude Belladroit, a Parisian refugee, accomplished liar, lothario and gifted pianist-cum-teacher. “He appreciates beautiful girls,” Cantabile says, “Fully appreciates them… why doesn’t [he] seduce them while he’s about it?” Annie flinches. She has fantasies of Belladroit making love to her. Thoughts of these others, in a much more favoured position, temporarily drive her insane.

Thus, the book is set for a folly of misunderstandings – variations on the eternal theme of love (lost and found, bought or free), with musings on punishment and deception. Grant at times writes like Jane Austen on crack cocaine or Dickens sating himself at an orgy – drawing freely on the literary posturing of past greats, but entirely, refreshingly modern, entirely herself.

She brings us the sisters, Everina and Marianne, abetted in rivalry by Harriet and Georgiana. Theirs is a heady fusion of innocence, guile and desire that plays (literally) into the hands of Monsieur Belladroit.

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Alathea, the daughter of the widower Sawney Sawneyford, is the exception. She is brilliantly, piquantly tragic, the star of the novel, and completely commands attention – along with Annie, who grows to transcend her vile disfigurement.

The young women’s seduction – frequently witty, scandalous, scurrilous and revealing of the differences in their natures – casts Belladroit increasingly into uncertainty. Their musical progress becomes eclipsed by their education in carnal adroitness – Monsieur Belladroit is well-named. But far more intriguing is the love affair between Annie and Alathea; the subtle frankness of its development, which might easily have toppled into posturing, is engrossing yet never prurient.

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Alathea becomes an eloquent and rational representative of radical free-thinking. Beholden to no one, she likes to shock, not least her father, who has fancied himself her master. Their relationship – a cat’s-cradle of guilt and pity, desire and duty – leads to a trauma that precipitates the novel’s one bloody moment of rebellion. The resulting shockwave upsets the putative climax of the tale – the grand graduation concert, intended as a triumph of female seduction, the untrammelled claiming of titled jewels.

This is one of several setpieces which are beautifully constructed. We witness the build-up to the concert, the nuts and bolts of it all – the guest list, the invitations, the fusspot mothers, all are sublime: “To the Countess of Allemond’s fury, Mrs Frogmorton, Mrs Drigg and Mrs Brass had already been to the Pall Mall saloon several times to plan winter flowers… and where exactly the pianofortes should be placed to show off the girls to best advantage.”

In another instance, the reader comes upon Alathea. Bold as a biddy, accosting a hangman with a kiss. “It’s not the unexpectedness he remembers, it’s… her tongue. He feels it from top to toe…” This vital image, like many others, mingles effrontery with decorum. Everything lives. Even the furniture – the grand piano, in particular, comes alive: “the mechanism groaning like an amputee…”

The real triumph, of course, is Grant’s. She makes you gasp and laugh and re-read, in order to relish again a paragraph or a full page. Her style is a triumph of wit and brio. No doubt the movie rights will be sold. You can see it all first, in original sin, between these covers.