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The Sparks Fly Upward Reader’s Guide

By Diana Norman

The Sparks Fly Upward by Diana Norman


Questions and Topics for Discussion


“Drama, passion, intrigue… I loved it and didn’t want it to end ever.”
–Sunday Times (London)

“[Norman] captures the feel of the period with wit, verve and emotion.”
–Woman’s Own

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 it–while 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 individuals–whether historical or contemporary figures–who 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 fiancŽ, 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 Philippa’s, time?
  • On her way to Babbs Cove, Makepeace reflects that she has had only three female friends in her life–her 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 marriages–to Philip Dapifer, a tar-and-feathered Britishman who rebuked American rebellion, and to Andra Burke, a hard-nosed entrepreneur who rebuked British aristocracy–why 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 men–Andrew 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 another?
  • 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 jealousy–jealousy 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 transgressions–carrying 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 death–or that she will be the cause of it–and 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 life–about love, about family, and about values? When forced to choose between loved ones and beloved ideas, what does each women do?
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