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The Napoleon Series > Book Reviews > General Interest Books

An Elegant Madness: High Society in Regency England.

By Venetia Murray

Murray, Venetia. An Elegant Madness: High Society in Regency England. N.Y.: Viking, 1999. 352 pages. ISBN# 067088328X. $29.95. Hardcover.

An Elegant Madness cover

Very disappointing. This book is badly researched, sloppily edited and errors are continually repeated. This is supposed to be a book about late Georgian England. Murray chooses a time period that covers the majority of the Prince of Wales, from the early 1780's until his death in 1830, a period of some 50 years. However, rather than following a logical sequence of events, she jumps around this very broad period with little regard to the development of society, London life or social mores. Even worse she will often cite events from different eras but mixed them all up —so there might be events from 1820 followed by one from 1790 then another from 1810. Yet Murray will discuss them in that order as though they all form a continuum —and worse, she will draw a conclusion from this.

Murray frequently misnames people and misdates events. For instance she confuses three generations of women in the Spencer and Cavendish families —and she does this with alarming regularity. This is in spite of purporting to have used some seven books, listed in her bibliography, specifically on these families.

In another instance, Murray gives the wrong year for Beau Brummell's infamous 'Dandy Ball,' where he cut the Prince of Wales with the words, "Who's your fat friend." This in itself would be almost forgivable if she hadn't poorly researched the reason why Brummell said this. In fact, her whole presentation of this event leaves the reader with the completely wrong impression. Murray claims that it was at this time that Brummell and the Prince of Wales had their falling out -implying that Brummell's rudeness on this occasion caused the rift. This is a completely erroneous point of view that is not backed up by any biographer of Brummell. In fact the rift between the pair happened one or two years prior to this event and no one knows precisely what caused it. However, there is no question on the events at the Dandy Ball, they are quoted in most books. Brummell was one of the four hosts of the Ball. The Prince of Wales had insisted on being invited, but when the Prince turned up he snubbed Brummell, walking right past him as though he didn't exist. Not particularly good behaviour to a host of the party you are attending, and didn't, really, have to attend. This rudeness is what prodded Brummell to make his famous quip. Thus, it was hardly an unprovoked rudeness as Murray implies.

In fact Murray's lack of reading in this case means that we are also presented with a number of old chestnuts about Brummell. Murray, again, expounds the unproved charge that Brummell's aunt kept the cows at Green Park —this was probably one of the contemporary salacious lies spread about Brummell. It is hardly useful being presented again as fact without any supporting evidence. It just raises another one of those urban myths for a whole new generation of readers.

Murray proves again and again she doesn't really understand, nor has properly researched, her period. She tells us that the Marquess of Worcester 'illegally' married his deceased wife's sister. This marriage took place in the early 1820's. The bill that made marriage to ones deceased wifes sister illegal was not passed until August 1, 1835. Until this marriage act was passed, these marriages were considered 'voidable' through the Ecclesiastical Courts under Canon Law - not illegal in a civil court.

Lady Holland perhaps best illustrates the situation. Commenting on the Marquis of Worcester's marriage to his wife's half-sister, Emily Frances Smith, in a letter dated 21 April 1824, Lady Holland wrote, "The Duchess of Beaufort [Lord Worcester's mother] has had an amiable interview with Lord Worcester, & invited Lady Worcester to England. Her religious scruples have taken a turn; but the marriage is still liable to be dissolved any day by an ill-natured person." I have taken this quote from Lady Holland to Her Son; 1821-1845, edited by The Earl of Ilchester.

There is also a tendency by Murray to misquote the sources that are used. So there is talk about a riot at Gibraltar, that was sparked by the violent discipline used by one of the Kings sons, the Duke of Kent. In An Elegant Madness the event is undated, and the details rather confusing. Yet going back to the original source, Roger Fulford's The Royal Dukes, it is clear that two events have been confused. First, the regime of punishment during the Duke of Kent's time in Canada and, secondly, a small riot at Gibraltar a few years later. This riot was sparked, not by the Dukes harsh punishments, but his petty rules denying the garrison their liquor. There was a letter, written much later, from one of the survivors of the riot which sums up the feeling of the men, "The Duke of Kent, I recollect him well. He was a very bad man. He would not let us drink."

Another exceptionally annoying but small detail is Murray's handling of military matters in this book. During a period that was dominated by the Napoleonic Wars there is precious little evidence of it in Murray's narrative. Pretty much the only concession she makes to this is that she occasionally says "after the war" - which I gather she is trying to convey that this is after the Napoleonic Wars in 1815.

The final point I will make here is that the index of this book is a mess. The following examples are just a few of the dozens and dozens in the index. There are entries to people with page numbers listed next to them, but these names don't appear on those pages. She has one entry listed for the Earl of Barrymore, but the page numbers are for both of the two brothers she writes about in her book who were successive Earls of Barrymore. One entry for the Marquis of Wellesley refers to two page numbers —the first page claims this individual was the Duke of Wellington's brother, the next that claims he was the Duke's nephew. In some instances the indexer fails to fully identify some people in the index —they are just listed by surname. I just find this compounds my suspicion that the indexer —and perhaps Murray— doesn't know who these people are in the first place.

I get the overwhelming impression that Murray doesn't really understand the people and times she is writing about. She has taken a few well-known diarists and letter writers and managed to cobble together a book to take advantage of the Regency market, but she slips up time and time again.

Reviewed by Anne Woodley, editor of the Regency Collection On-Line.