Book Review: Sedition by Katharine Grant

The much-discussed relationship between sex and music isn’t as recent a phenomenon as you might think. However refined and proper the music of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries seems to today’s listeners, there is much anecdotal evidence suggesting responses at the time were anything but sedate; women who attended Franz Liszt’s concerts reportedly threw items of clothing onto the stage and tucked his cigar butts into their cleavage.

In Sedition, Katharine Grant takes the music-sex link and runs with it, with results that are alternately hilarious and unsettling. Set in Georgian London, Sedition is the story of five girls of marriageable age and the plot that their fathers—a sordid cabal of wealthy but lowborn merchants—concoct in order to see them wed to titled men. Business-minded to the last, the fathers are all too aware that looks alone are not enough to trade on in a competitive marriage market, and in an effort to bump up their daughters’ value, they arrange for the girls to play a concert on the music world’s latest invention: the pianoforte. In order to do so, however, the girls must first be equipped with both the instrument and a series of lessons, and complications quickly arise in the form of the music master Claude Belladroit (paid by the resentful piano maker to seduce the young women), and in Annie Cantabile, the disfigured daughter of the piano maker who hates the girls for their beauty and privilege. Unbeknownst even to these schemers, though, one of the young women—Alathea Sawneyford—has both a wealth of sexual knowledge and a distinctly amoral bent, and when Annie and Alathea meet and fall in love, they join forces in an effort to wreak havoc on the plans their fathers and would-be lovers have laid.

If the plot of Sedition sounds convoluted, that’s because it is—in the best way possible. In many respects, Grant’s novel is a throwback to the comedy of manners: playful, suggestive, and biting. More than once, I was reminded of Wycherley’s The Country Wife; nevermore so, perhaps, than when the once lecherous Belladroit finds himself in the increasingly hapless position of chief minister to the girls (and their newly awakened sexual appetites):

He was slightly sore from Marianne and it was not just she who irritated and alarmed. All the girls’ behavior had altered. Like Marianne, Everina turned questioner, asking how she might improve her technique, by which she did not mean at the pianoforte. He preferred her giggle to her questions. Then there was Georgiana. No matter what he said or did, she worshiped him, and when he took her, which he found himself obliged to do just often enough to spare her the indignity of begging, the whole operation moved him less than washing his hands. Harriet was still untaken, though he could see from her dress today that for some reason she was no longer unwilling…Perhaps he would never tumble Harriet. Perhaps he would hand back a fifth of Cantabile’s money and leave her be. Perhaps, for his next assignment, he would go to the East, where girls were kept in harems and never let loose on music masters.

The struggle to stay one step ahead in a game of sexual chess, the derailment of well-laid plans through the unexpected quirks of chance and human agency, the confused (or willfully obstructed) flow of information—all are hallmarks of Restoration comedy. And it would all be horribly confusing were Grant not such a dab hand at characterization. Sedition boasts a Dickensian range of characters, all vying for sexual partners and narrative space, yet in just over 300 pages Grant manages to furnish each and every one of them with a plausible set of dreams, desires, and goals. It’s no small feat, but it’s an important one in a novel so interested in the subversive potential of female agency, even (especially?) when the women in question are so easily dismissed as “concert puffballs” (“A little sedition,” Alathea says, is good for women). In the end, even fragile, virginal Georgiana proves to have a will of her own and plans utterly distinct from those of either her father or Alathea.

This, then, is one half of Sedition: a beguilingly high-spirited tale of sexual escapades and intrigues. But the easy (if ever so slightly dangerous) humor of the girls’ seduction and counter-seduction exists in tension with something much darker and much more painful: a story of sexual competition that is first stripped of all hijinks and repartee and then pushed to alarming extremes. Without Alathea, Sedition would be an entertaining but insubstantial read; with her, it is unsettling but decidedly weightier.

In her characterization of Alathea, Grant is treading a dangerously thin line, and I have to admit that I had early misgivings. Mistrusted by women, irresistible to men, trailing a musky scent wherever she goes, Alathea is an overtly sexual—even vampish—figure from the moment she enters the novel (demanding, memorably, that a hangman kiss his recently executed charge). This is, after all, a character whose tongue alone merits an entire paragraph:

When Alathea’s tongue was out, it mesmerized. In terms of years, it was still a novice. In terms of imagination and experiment, it was quite advanced. Before the age of thirteen she had worked out that the tongue, the physical tongue, that is, not the wordy tongue, was a woman’s unsuspected weapon, attracting and repelling, drawing in and excluding, and all without even touching an opponent.

But Alathea is not merely a seductress; it is equally clear, from early in the novel, that her actions will sooner or later incite the other girls to revolt. The ground is laid, in other words, for Alathea to be a sort of combined rebel/jezebel—a tricky combination to pull off well. However subversive female sexuality is in a world that often denies female desire, it can be dangerous to cast that sexuality as the primary source of a woman’s power—and more dangerous still to imply that the woman in question was aware of and able to exploit that power at the age of thirteen. Frankly, the portrayal of Alathea as an extremely precocious femme fatale troubled me.

Fortunately, my fears were groundless. If anything, Alathea proves to be a subtle deconstruction of the femme fatale, not so much because of her affair with Annie (though Grant does in fact paint their relationship in tenderer colors than she does any other), but rather because she is ultimately far less in control of those around her than she believes—with devastating results.

If Sedition has a weakness, then, it is simply the fact that reading about music tends to be less interesting than listening to it. It’s a rare novel that can capture, in words, the wordless transcendence of music. To her credit, Grant seems aware of the challenges of bringing music to life on the page and is generally adept at finding ways around the problem. She of course gets exceptionally good mileage out of music as a metaphor for sex, but in largely shifting her focus away from the music itself and towards the performance of it, Grant is also able to use her descriptions of the girls’ playing as a surprisingly flexible vehicle for plot and characterization (of Harriet, for example: “[She] made the most of her great entry, playing Variation 4 like a businessman constructing a letter of serious import. Pay attention. No slacking. Hint of whip crack. Yours sincerely”). All the same, some readers may find Sedition’s inevitable forays into the music itself—the “semitones,” “quodlibets,” and “demisemiquavers,”—tedious.

Still, there is something musical about Sedition’s form, if not always its descriptions of Bach’s Clavier Übung. In one of the novel’s most successful attempts to wed music to narrative, Annie plays a composition of her own for Belladroit, who finds himself oddly discomfited:

This music recognized the sol-fa but would not settle in one 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.

At a loss, Belladroit can ultimately say only that Annie “write[s] like a woman,” but it might be more accurate to say that she writes like someone deeply interested in subverting the status quo. So, perhaps, does Grant. In many ways, Sedition reads like two separate novels, and it would no doubt be easier to read each storyline separately than it is to read them in conjunction. It is not so much the darkness of Alathea’s storyline but rather the weirdly discordant mixture of breezy humor and genuine heartache that proves disconcerting. It is not an easy novel to classify, and like Annie’s music, it tends to wind its readers up without offering them much in the way of comfortable resolution. But perhaps that’s exactly the tone a novel called “Sedition” should strike.

Sedition was published in April 2014 by Henry Holt and Co. Find out more about it on Goodreads, or buy it on Amazon.


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Filed under Book Reviews, Books I've Read (and Thought About)

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