AN ELEGANT MADNESS by Venetia Murray


High Society in Regency England
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Glittering and gossipy, an extravagant panorama of the “Age of Scandal”. Describing a period where manners were all, morals nothing, and money useful but not essential, novelist and social historian Murray (Castle Howard: The Life and Times of a Stately Home, not reviewed) lightly surveys the English aristocracy’s and beau monde’s best time since the Restoration. The habits and hobbies, fancies and finances of Regency bucks and beaux, debs and “demi-reps” (i.e., courtesans) may be fodder for bodice-buster novels, but the facts are no less sensational, at least at the top of society’s upper crust. The Prince Regent, the future George IV, arguably had more taste (both good and bad) than any other monarch and set the tone for the bon ton with reckless spending, architectural extravagance, sartorial ostentation, an irregular love life, and gluttonous appetite’subjects addressed here in titillating detail. In Nurray’s account, these characteristics of his count for more than, say, his ties with radical politics or his succession scheming during the Regency Crisis. Likewise, among his friends, Beau Brummel, the era’s best-dressed gentleman, counts for more in these pages than Charles James Foy, the brilliant but dissolute opposition politician, and in the historical calendar of events, the Grand Jubilee of 1814 gets more space than the “Peterloo” massacre during food riots in 1816. With a top-heavy but otherwise wide-ranging array of observers and informants, Murray’s sources include the mandatory Lord Byron and Lady Caroline Lamb as well as Captain Charles Gronow and the busybody Princess Lieven of Austria, plus the archives at Windsor and Chatsworth. Murray ends in cautioning her reader that the Regency Era was not merely “a glamorous chimera,” but like any good gossip, her book cannot help gravitating to the era’s diverting aspects. A social history—with the emphasis heavily on the social—both frivolously entertaining and assiduously researched. (16 pages b&w illustrations, not seen)

Pub Date: March 1st, 1999
ISBN: 0-670-88328-X
Page count: 317pp
Publisher: Viking
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15th, 1999


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