The Sparks Fly Upward
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"[Norman] captures the feel of the period with wit, verve and emotion."
A new novel of love and courage in a time of war, from the author of A Catch of Consequence and Taking Liberties.
Few of those Philippa loves in London return her affection. Not the love of her life, who has a new bride. Not even her widowed mother, Makepeace Burke. So Philippa decides on a marriage of convenience to a prudish, if kind, man.
Across the Channel in France, the Reign of Terror is causing the beheading of thousands from the French nobility. Among those in danger is Philippa's friend, the Marquis de Condorcet. Not only has Philippa the means of rescuing him from the guillotine, she's got the courage. And as fate would have it, Philippa will find love where she least expects itwhile staring death in the face.
Having worked on local newspapers in Devon and the East End of London, Diana Norman became, at age twenty, the youngest reporter on London's Fleet Street. Now the author of biographies and historical novels, The Sparks Fly Upward is her third novel following the loves and adventures of Makepeace Burke and her family in the heady revolutionary days of the late 1700s. Diana Norman lives in Hertfordshire, England, with her husband, film critic Barry Norman, and together they have two daughters.
- As The Sparks Fly Upward begins, the two-years-widowed Makepeace Burke appears
to be scandalized by the waltzes danced at Lord Andrew Ffoulkes's ball. Yet, it soon
becomes clear that Makepeace's mourning clothes and puritanical protests are a
temporary cloak. In what ways does Makepeace conform to her times, and how does she
rebel against them?
- Makepeace's daughter, Philippa Dapifer, wonders at Makepeace's tendency to draw
adventures like "a woman who'd been born to trouble as the sparks fly upwards." Why is
Makepeace consistently and personally entangled in the political upheavals of her day?
What qualities does Philippa share with her mother? Why does Philippa believe that she
and Makepeace "have to be useful?" Does Philippa's decision to accept Stephen
Heilbron's marriage proposal, though she loves the unattainable Andrew Ffoulkes, fit her
beliefs about herself?
- Philippa describes the publisher and anarchist John Beasley, to whom Makepeace
offers shelter, as "lumpish and grubby and stubborn and not a little pleased" with himself,
deciding that most "great martyrs" probably shared the same profile. Is this assessment
surprising? How do we usually imagine individualswhether historical or contemporary
figureswho are prepared to die for their beliefs? As various characters in the story
stand up for their beliefs, sometimes facing death, do they fit or alter Philippa's initial
view of martyrdom?
- Despite his impassioned work to abolish the slave trade from Britain, Philippa's
fianc, Stephen Heilbron, does not support women's equality as espoused by one of
Philippa's personal heroes, Mary Wollstonecraft, in A Vindication of the Rights of
Women. In what ways were women treated as property during Wollstonecraft's, and
- On her way to Babbs Cove, Makepeace reflects that she has had only three female
friends in her lifeher nurse, Betty; the American, Susan Brewer; and Diana, the
Dowager Countess of Stacpoole, who had married Makepeace's French colleague in the
smuggling trade, Gauillame De Vaubon. Why do you think Makepeace had so few
female friends, particularly among women of her own class in England? How do her
relationships with men, as charges, friends, and lovers, compare to those with women?
How does her relationship with Jacques De Vaubon, the boy she is protecting, compare to
her relationship with her younger daughters, Jenny and Sally?
- Makepeace, as an American, had seen the tragedies of slavery firsthand, and had heard
stories of the Middle Passage from her nurse, Betty. But in Bristol, Makepeace witnesses
a mother and son attempt to escape slavery, and the scene haunts her. How and why does
this experience affect and change her?
- Wandering through Grub Street, Philippa considers how it could be that "people didn't
equate sin with desperation," that they "refused to see that extreme poverty was also
enslavement." How does poverty influence the choices made by Vladimir the Scratcher
and his wife? Of the Marquis de Condorcet's family, Sophie and Eliza, in hiding? Of the
French aristocrats in England, including the Chevalier St. Joly, who is stripped of the
Order of St. Louis by his fellow exiles?
- George Hackbutt, the attorney defending John Beasley from charges of treason,
champions his client, announcing that his own patriotism is "where it always wasÉon the
same side as English justice." In what ways are Makepeace, Philippa, and the other
characters in The Sparks Fly Upward pushed to "choose" between ideals of nation and
ideals of humanity? How are they able to reconcile these sets of ideals? When do they fail
to do so?
- As Philippa contemplates the forged passport she has procured for the Marquis de
Condorcet, she remembers that "liberty is indivisible or it is not liberty" and decides to
hand them to Nicolas herself. Why does Philippa resolve to personally smuggle the
papers to France? What does she feel is at stake, for herself and for her friend? Does she
expect to return to England? And what does she feel she will gain from the journey?
- Why does Makepeace take on the management of the play during her brother Aaron's
illness? What draws her to Michael Murrough? What repels her? How does Makepeace
stereotype "Sir Mick"? When, after they first make love, Mick says that Makepeace is
"that sort of woman," what does he mean? Given the history of her marriagesto Philip
Dapifer, a tar-and-feathered Britishman who rebuked American rebellion, and to Andra
Burke, a hard-nosed entrepreneur who rebuked British aristocracywhy does she find
her latest choice of companion so surprising?
- When Philippa arrives in France, she notes that everyone, from a young couple in
love to a street sweeper, seems to have "grown used to it"the guillotine. Why does this
realization sit so heavily with her? What does she mean when she says that the Place de
la Greve, that the city of Paris, "would never be the same" again? Why does she say that
the revolution has been made "stupid"?
- Nicolas Condorcet says that his book, The Progress of the Human Mind, "will show
that nature has set no bounds to the perfecting of human facultiesÉIndependently of any
power that would like to stop it, as the Terror is trying to do, so long as our globe exists,
the tempo will differ but we shall never go back." Why does he refuse to leave France
until he has finished the book? Why does Philippa say she loves him for it, and how does
her love for Condorcet compare to the love she has expressed for other menAndrew
Ffoulkes, Stephen Heilbron?
- Why do Reverend Deedes and Stephen Heilbron try to shut down the performance of
Oroonoko, which has been produced in support of their abolitionist cause? How do
different characters in the book rank their causes? Is it possible to choose one cause over
- Discuss the play, Oroonoko. How does the eventual description of the play as it is
unfolding on stage correspond to and differ from the way you imagined it from depiction
of the rehearsals? What does Makepeace expect from the play's debut? How does the
performance alter Makepeace's view of Sir Mick and of the company's actors? Why does
it seem that seeing Oroonoko offers Makepeace and others in the audience a more
realistic and moving view of slavery and humanity than they have witnessed before?
- Makepeace and Philippa believe that Boy Blanchard's maneuvering is spurred by
jealousyjealousy of the accomplishment, wealth, and status of his friends, and
especially of Andrew Ffoulkes. Do you agree? Is Blanchard lying when he hatefully
blurts that Philippa is "like to cause the death of my best friend"? Why is Blanchard's
double-dealing and betrayal such a blow to Andrew? How does Andrew reassess his
friendship with Blanchard, and in what ways does this circumspection affect his
relationship with Philippa?
- When Stephen Heilbron asks Makepeace for Jenny's hand in marriage, Makepeace is
upset by how reasonably he behaved, and retorts "Don't you see that you shouldn't be
asking me this? We're not trading slaves, Stephen...She can give or withhold her consent
as she likes. For God's sake, man, she is a free human being." But Heilbron deflects
Makepeace by accepting her permission for the marriage. Why does Makepeace react so
strongly to the interview? What has changed her perspective about the conventions of
gender and marriage?
- After Andrew and Philippa are arrested in the Terror, their fates are sealed: As
"English spies and monarchists," they are assumed to be enemies to the ideals of the
Revolution, regardless of their actual beliefs. But are they? Those who are condemned to
die alongside them at their trial are "guilty" of a variety of transgressionscarrying an
aristocratic title, pursuing a religious calling, originating from a reactionary village,
sharing a name with someone who had been accused. Why did Robespierre and other
leaders of the Terror conduct such a merciless and seemingly random campaign against
their own citizens? Did they succeed by using terror?
- In prison, Philippa can reconcile herself to her threatening execution, but she cannot
bear the thought of Andrew's deathor that she will be the cause of itand by
confessing her agony to Andrew, she learns that he loves her. What obstacles prevented
Andrew from realizing his love for Philippa sooner? Why does their literal imprisonment
unbridle their love for each other? After they escape the guillotine, why do they choose to
condemn themselves to another separation?
- Makepeace Burke's life was completely transfigured by the American Revolution,
just as Philippa Dapifer's life is remade by the French Revolution. Yet both women
struggle to instill a sense of humanity into the larger, bloody battles over ideas and
property. How do moments of crisis punctuate our choices in lifeabout love, about
family, and about values? When forced to choose between loved ones and beloved ideas,
what does each women do?