THY NEIGHBOUR’S PIANO: DESIRE AND POWER IN KATHARINE GRANT’S SEDITION

Katharine Grant Sedition (Virago, 2014)

by Michael O’Brien

Katharine Grant’s historical adventures for children have taken place in various colourful settings around the world, such as the south of France, the Holy Land, and London. These novels, while featuring such grandly powerful characters as King John, King Richard II, and Richard the Lionheart, have remained quite often, in the novelist’s words, about “domestic situations in the wider political landscape.” Sedition is her first novel for adults.

While it retains the same focus on domesticity, this time Grant goes further to uncover the workings of desire and power within familial relations. The fundamental difference between Sedition, set in London in 1794, and Grant’s previous writing, is her willingness to focus more intensely on the darker side of power-relations operating within a family. These are the relations where power constitutes, as Foucault writes, “a mode of action upon the actions of others”, and “where freedom must exist for power to be exercised” [1]. Examining these power-relations allows Grant to display dysfunctional familial situations which have an impact on society at large. These families contribute to a more general “anomic state”, i.e. a more general state of disconnectedness between the individuals that inhabit society’s larger groups [2]. The protagonist Alathea, for example, is brought up to seek power, and consequently matures into a person who exploits her social relationships for personal gain rather than social cohesion.

Sedition has a very strong sense of time and place, described in detailed prose made up of precise vocabulary and crystal clear images. 1794 saw the rise of the bourgeois in France, and Grant describes London as full of “upstarts and opportunists.” For Alathea’s father Sawneyford, the city is a “womb through which his world reverberated.” Alathea, who “has made the streets her own,” sees them as a place of toxicity, a “sticky spread”, where if her father “trod in shit, he did not care” because he was “the City’s child, as well as the city’s.” This latter “city” is the place with “the wheelbarrows, dung, livestock and people […] confronting or avoiding, threatening or persuading, hiding or revealing”, people who are full of “contempt, derision, (and) admiration.” This is an anomic city. People are disconnected. London is a place for the “lucky, the unlucky and the shameful” and its inhabitants are conditioned into seeking power to survive.

Within the first few pages of Sedition, the reader realises she has entered a domain somewhat darker, more daring, and more disturbing than those found in Grant’s children’s fiction, as she witnesses Alathea’s desire for power manifest itself. At the start of the novel, Alathea sees “A young woman hanging […] quite dead” and then helps an angry hangman, “who doesn’t get paid for collecting suicides,” cut the deceased woman down from her hanging place at the top of Threadneedle Street, near the Bank of England. Alathea then commands the hangman to kiss the dead woman. She demonstrates the manner in which she believes this should be done, by kissing the hangman “full on the lips.” She “removes the corpse’s shoes and tries them on,” rather disrespectfully (but nonetheless beautifully) embracing the dead woman’s femininity as her own, and by kissing the hangman on the lips, symbolically owns the deceased woman’s passage to the afterlife.

The Foucauldian suggestion that “freedom must exist for power to be exercised”, is echoed again and again in Sedition. A prime example lies in the relationship between Alathea and her father Sawneyford. Alathea willingly hands over her body to him to use as he wishes. When he says: “I own you entirely,” Alathea replies, “No, father you don’t […] I’m […] not an ownable kind of daughter.” Alathea demonstrates she is a free agent and only grants her father the illusion that he has power over her. Allowing her father to use her body is ultimately a selfish act because it empowers Alathea by constituting “a mode of action upon the actions of others,” allowing her a more subtle control over her father than he possesses over her.

Alathea, in freely giving herself to her father with the aim of controlling him, willingly contributes to the dynamics of an unsymmetrical relationship. Her behaviour directly contributes to her society’s anomie. This is not an equitable and authentic relationship built on feelings of genuine love and concern for the other; rather it is an unbalanced and toxic dynamic built on feelings of animal lust, desire for power, and heartless strategic rationality. The reason Alathea has the upper hand is that she has a deeper understanding of how power operates than her father. Sawneyford however, constituted more of brutish desire than subtle intellect, wears his desires on his sleeve and pays the price for it. He very clearly wants to possess his daughter in every sense of the word. She lets him. Therefore she controls him. This is his downfall.

Grant has created a novel of social fiction in which she examines how power operated in London in the late eighteenth century. She explained in our interview that she is concerned with what happens in ordinary life to a greater degree than what happens on the periphery, though both remain overtly interconnected in her work. She connects ordinary life to the wider social landscape by exposing her characters’ unique interactions with each other and the threatening environmental conditions which surround them. If, then, Sedition is a novel about how power operated in 1794, it also shows how the instruments of power change. Its plot revolves around the plans of “an unscrupulous band of City speculators” (Alathea’s father among them) who “require a pianoforte and a teacher to find titled husbands for all their daughters.” This may remind readers of Pride and Prejudice’s famous opening line, “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” Grant, though, seems more interested in examining the insipid toxicity of certain types of power-relations within familial structures. She recalls that one reviewer has referred to Sedition as “Jane Austen on crack.” She sees a certain degree of the toxic domestic in Jane Austen, especially in characters such as Mrs Bennett, who although a clever politician “was a horrible woman really,” as seen in her desire to marry Lizzie off to the largely unattractive Mr Collins without Lizzie’s consent. Sedition takes this idea one step further. The conjugal family ran by parents in search of suitors for their daughters becomes less nurturing to child development and more damaging to society. As Alathea matures into an agent completely devoid of any sense of moral imperative, launching herself upon a debauched sexual rampage in search power, Grant’s protagonist presents herself as being more ruthless than Austen’s Lizzie. Grant’s text is more sinister than Austen’s due to Grant’s willingness to focus in on the notion of “obscene enjoyment” at the core of human action [3]. In Pride and Prejudice we get this in brief glimpses.

Little wonder then that the plot spirals out of control as Alathea, Sawneyford, Throgmorton, Gumbril Jr, and others aspire for personal advancement over and above the harsh conditions of such a twisted and debauched London reality. For Émile Durkheim, “the child can have a moral education only if he lives in a society all the members of which have a sense of their obligations toward one another.” He writes that “there is no moral society in which the members do not have obligations towards one another” [4]. No such moral education exists in Alathea’s family or in any of the other families in Sedition. The character of Frogmorton, for instance, is an immoral agent who finds pleasure in power, one who “admired his social superiors because their forefathers had hacked, trampled and murdered their way to the top of England’s tree, and stuck there.”

As soon as Alathea gets herself into such a position as to be able to pull it off without dire consequences to herself, she brutally disfigures her father by castrating him. In this novel, power is always selfish and lustful, a base impulse. Frogmorton thinks that it is “every father’s duty” to rise to the top of the tree because “Strong blood […] was what he desired for his grandchildren.” While this desire for power appears to be justified by a bastardised version of either Darwin’s theories of evolution or of Nietzsche’s will-to-power, it is actually much closer to Hegel’s master-slave morality in application, which he saw as being the historical organisational imperative of human action. In Sedition the characters seek power to survive and enjoy doing so based upon a subconscious belief that people are objects to be organised. People can be organised by acting upon their actions.

This is a Victorian London degraded by human waste and competitive individualism, a place where the rats rule and the weak perish. Sedition is a novel that dwells in our shadows.

Notes:

  1. Michel Foucault, ‘The Subject and Power’ in Michel Foucault: Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics, ed. H. Dreyfus and P. Rabinow (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1983) pp. 208-226.
  2. Emile Durkheim, The Division of Labour in Society, trans. G. Simpson, (New York: The Free Press, 1893/1960) p. 5.
  3. Slavoj Žižek The Sublime Object of Ideology (London: Verso, 2008) p. 86.
  4. Emile Durkheim, ‘The Conjugal Family’ trans. Mark Traugott, in Emile Durkheim on Institutional Analysis, (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1978) p. 239.
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