Plainly (and gleefully) derived from Les Liaisons Dangereuses and the epistolary novels of Samuel Richardson, its language a knowing approximation of period patter cranked up to the max, Philippa Stockley's A Factory of Cunning lacks only the presence of Blackadder and Baldric to confirm our mediatised assumptions about a certain kind of late 18th-century life. Drummed out of Holland, having made the Continent too hot to hold her ("I had been wrongfully implicated in a scandalous affair in Paris...For which... the mob considered hanging too modest a recompense"), precariously established in Warp Lane, its protagonist - the mysterious Mrs Fox - opens a campaign of malign interference in half-a-dozen associated lives.
Procuress, libertine and corrupter of youth, Mrs Fox is a thoroughly bad lot. Egged on by the Dutch philosopher Van Essell, with whom she voluminously corresponds, her prime target is the sinister debauchee and porn-fancier Earl Much. Related plot-lines snake out from the genteelly refurbished brothel in Hipp Street in which Mrs F discreetly conducts her operations, involving a ripe catalogue of duplicity, false identity, identically birth- marked half-siblings and virgins rescued from the seducer's grasp.
Epistolary novels have a habit of finding themselves constrained by the givens of the form - the difficulty of making the extent of the information dealt back and forth seem plausible. Notwithstanding some shaky moments when one of the Earl's discarded trifles provides a good three pages of accusatory back-story, and man-about-town Darley's tongue-in-cheek admission to his architect friend Coats that "it's deuced awful to make a fellow put pen to paper, but that's what folly you have driven me to", Stockley is alert to these dangers. She has a fine old time drawing her characters in and out of focus.
No point in giving away the ending, other than to say that a somewhat compromised innocence has the edge over a malicious deviance, and that Mrs Fox and the earl each get their just desserts. If Stockley's accomplished second novel has a flaw it is the thought that, amid lashings of cruelty and moral turpitude, nothing very serious is at stake.
The sense of actors saying their lines is quite as obtrusive as the stink of unwashed petticoats. Like many a modern historical confection, A Factory of Cunning offers high-grade entertainment while tending to ignore the horrors that lurk below its agreeably shiny surface.
D J Taylor's `Orwell: the life' is published by VintageReuse content