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Venetia Murray's new book documents the absurd excesses of 18th-century England.

By Charles Davis

APRIL 19, 1999: 

AN ELEGANT MADNESS: HIGH SOCIETY IN REGENCY ENGLAND, by Venetia Murray. Viking, 316 pages, $29.95.

The Regency Period in England takes its name from the Prince of Wales (later George IV) who was named regent when George III, suffering from hereditary porphyria, slipped into dementia near the end of his reign. When George III retired into relative seclusion to be cared for by his wife in the final years of his life, the Prince Regent unleashed himself on society, dressing wildly, drinking heavily, and generally living loosely.

Whether George III's infirmity, and the political uncertainty that followed, induced the extravagant upper-class dissolution that characterized the Regency is a question open to debate. The novelist and social historian Venetia Murray, however, has left such questions of causality to academics, providing instead an intimate portrait of the the years 1780-1830 in order to "convey the mood of the Regency, to entertain [her readers], and, perhaps, to enlighten a few."

Murray has suitable material to work with, for the intensity of the privileged classes' debauchery was matched only by their mania for recording it. Letter writing, bolstered by improvements made to the system of mail delivery, flourished and nearly rose to an art form. Seemingly everyone kept a diary, or rather a catalogue of the outrageous public behavior of one's friends. And caricature matured to the level of withering social commentary. That so many of these cultural documents survive makes the Regency rich for excavation. Murray has thoroughly scoured the archives for such material, much of it uncovered here for the first time. Weeping fops, bitterly severe dowagers, sodden aesthetes, and calculating courtesans come together in these pages to produce a riot of elegance.

One doesn't have to listen at keyholes or rummage through closets to discover the lurid underside of the Regency. Bastards were often acknowledged and frequently doted upon; on more than one occasion, they advanced securely through the ranks of society. Take Maria Fagniani, daughter of the sexually democratic Marchessa Fagniani, whose dubious parentage worked wonderfully to her advantage: two men besides the Marchessa's husband claimed paternity, and all three left Maria sizable inheritances. Although the question of Maria's lineage remained in doubt, she became one of the most desirable women on the market, eventually marrying a lord. In more staid times the concern had been, Who were your people? But in the Regency that question transformed into, How much are you worth?

Those with money strove to exhibit it -- the more ostentatiously, the better. Dandies of the day took their lead from George Ryan ("Beau") Brummel, who rose to prominence primarily for the gracefulness of his dress and the fineness of his manners. It is reported that his dressing room always teemed with spectators seeking to determine exactly how he tied his neckcloth. One of his acolytes actually recorded the method for the benefit of succeeding generations: "The first coup d'achet was made with the shirt collar, which he folded down to its proper size; and then, standing before the looking-glass, with his chin poked up towards the ceiling, by the gentle and gradual declension of his lower jaw he creased the cravat to reasonable dimensions." And that's merely an excerpt. For Beau Brummel and his fellow dandies, style and presentation took precedence over pedigree and place.

Murray has dug into a seemingly endless supply of provocative material. One chapter is devoted to dining culture and includes the menu (which spreads over three pages of this volume) of one the Prince Regent's more hedonistic dinners. Another chapter deals exclusively with life at country houses and seaside resorts. Yet another revolves around the exclusive London social clubs that proliferated at this time, when "the concept that men were accountable to their womenfolk on the subject of their whereabouts had yet to be invented." Power and influence, however, were not the exclusive province of men during the Regency. Grandes dames such as Lady Castlereach and Lady Cowper ruled over polite society with unyielding force, and one's social standing often depended on their approbation. And, according to some, "a mistress had a better deal than a wife," not least of all because she controlled her own money.

Murray presents her material in the form of a loose picaresque, but one in which no lessons are learned and no repentance is offered. The one unifying element here is the Prince Regent himself, who enters from time to time to sponsor an especially dazzling entertainment or to stumble drunkenly through a party. Murray, however, only reports on the scene, leaving judgment and criticism to the reader. She notes but never condemns excessive behavior, and she dissects but never rules on character. Although she refrains for the most part from analytical incursions into the text, she does allude to how the French Revolution, which challenged the ancient premise of rule by divine right, made possible the birth of a new aristocracy that sought to demonstrate its power through extravagant manners. Murray does not champion the excesses of the period. She does, however, close with a catalogue of the Regency's achievements, including the founding of the Royal Society of Literature, reminding us that this age of scandal was also capable of producing high elegance.


Charles Davis is a writer living in Boston and a contributing writer to the Boston Book Review.


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