Sedition by Katharine Grant
6th Mar 2014
You may have recently come into contact with the name Katharine Grant. Making the rounds in the newspapers is the story of how her five times great uncle Francis Towneley was the last man in the UK to be hanged, drawn and quartered, and how the family used to keep his severed head in a hat box.
It is therefore no surprise that Sedition, her first adult-themed novel, does not shy away from shocking topics, nor does it mince its words. It is an audacious offering from a writer whose previous audience was exclusively children and young adults, and Grant successfully makes the transition away from adventure stories to historical fiction.
The novel sets the tone with its prologue: it’s London, 1794, and a young woman has been found hanged on Threadneedle Street. Whilst the hangman sets about removing the body, we are introduced to Alathea, who helps the hangman get the body down, tries on the woman’s shoes, and kisses the hangman on the lips. Grant clearly relishes consistently wrong-footing her readers, and this prologue’s heady mix of death, romance, and power reveals the underlying themes that will feature in the book to its end.
Grant clearly relishes consistently wrong-footing her readers, and this prologue’s heady mix of death, romance, and power reveals the underlying themes that will feature in the book to its end. The core plot-point – parents seeking to increase their daughters’ chances at marrying well by ordering them to learn the pianoforte – could almost be taken from an Austen novel, except this gaggle of Mrs Bennets is made up of four fathers; a bunch of wealthy City speculators looking for titled sons-in-law and the glory of making advantageous matches.
A spectacularly creepy pianist named Claude Belladroit is installed as the girls’ tutor, who has been engaged by piano maker Vittorio Cantabile. Slighted by one of the fathers, Cantabile enlists Belladroit to seduce each of the women, ensuring that their marriage prospects are ruined. What follows is a cat-and-mouse game, with Belladroit sizing up his ‘opponents’ and truly underestimating them all.
Standout characters are the aforementioned Alathea, and Cantabile’s daughter Annie, a talented pianist, lonely and cooped-up, a pawn used by her father to intimidate customers due to her cleft-lip. Their romance is wonderfully unconventional, and Grant excels in creating two solitary opposites who are brought together by their love of music.
Music is ever-present in the novel, and with Grant a pianist herself, it is only natural that her own passion for the piano gives rise to pages steeped in musical terminology – prestissimo here, a rondo there, perfectly capturing the zeal Alathea and Annie have for music, and each other.
It is not solely the lives of Alathea and Annie that change due to this musical catalyst. The other girls, sisters Marianne and Evelina, Harriet, and Georgiana, all experience transformations not only at the hands of Monsieur Belladroit, but also seated in front of the pianoforte, and this combination of sex and music culminates in a thrilling final act.
Comparison is likely to be drawn between Grant and Sarah Waters, given their books’ settings, tone, and inclusion of lesbian relationships, but perhaps Grant lacks a little subtlety in her staging of events. By taking her novel at such a gallop, Sedition lacks the quieter, reflective moments often prized in Waters’ work.
Nonetheless, Sedition is an accomplished adult début, begging for translation to the screen, with plenty of dark humour, transgressive romance, and shocking developments to incite readers’ passions.