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The Napoleon Series > Book Reviews > Memoirs

Captain Gronow: His Reminiscences of Regency and Victorian Life 1810-60

By R.H. Gronow

Gronow, R.H. Captain Gronow: His Reminiscences of Regency and Victorian Life 1810-60. Edited with notes by Christopher Hibbert. London: Kyle Cathie, 1991. 313 pages. ISBN# 1856260135. Hardcover. Out of print.

Gronow cover

Gronow, what can I say? Approach him with caution, even with Christopher Hibbert's very helpful editing and annotations. R. H. Gronow (1794-1865) was one of those shadowy figures that drifted through the Regency and Victorian times. He rarely features in letters and diaries — but his memoirs, written in the 1860's, seem to indicate he knew all the right people. Perhaps this was because he spent much of his time observing life around him, a commentator rather than a participant in events himself.

There are three problems I have with Gronow. He wrote up to 40 years after events; he clearly wrote entirely for money; and there is no way of knowing if he was actually present at events that he writes about, or merely heard about them later. All in all, Gronow published four volumes of his reminiscences between 1862 and 1866, and they cover his life from 1810 to 1860. By the end of it he was rather scraping the barrel for suitably gossipy tittle-tattle to share with an avid public. Yes, the audience of the day lapped them up, and there lies some of the problems I have with Gronow. Clearly much of what he said is inaccurate, misdated, or just plain salacious gossip garnered from other sources such as Captain Jesse.

Christopher Hibbert has done some fairly strict editing but he has also organised the material into logical chapters, seventeen of them in all. While the Victorian readers for whom this was published would probably have been much more aware of whom Gronow was talking of, with time and distance we understand little of their significance. Hibbert's footnotes are pretty good in filling in the gaps, or providing the significance of the event. And his chapter groupings give some sense to material that originally spanned four volumes.

I do feel a bit short-changed by Hibbert's footnotes at times though. He often doesn't pick up on Gronow's own mistakes (the misdating of events and etc.) and I also feel that Hibbert might have provided more information in his footnotes for some other events. For instance, neither Gronow nor Hibbert really tell the full story of the 'heroic' Lady Waldegrave (pages 68-69) of the Peninsular War. She was actually Anne King and did not marry Lord Waldegrave until 1815. This background sheds a great deal more light on Gronow's simple story and would have been a great addition, I think, to the work.

Hibbert tends to restrict himself to explaining who people were, and simple outlines of events, but I feel that he never really understood Gronow properly, nor took the time to examine the stories fully. I think he might have done a better job had he followed Lesley Blanch's example in her editing of Harriette Wilson's memoirs, which she turned into the biography, The Game of Hearts. Blanch got inside Wilson and her motivations for writing her memoirs in a way Hibbert never does.

Still, I don't mean to sell Hibbert's editing short. I think he has done the best job so far in editing and annotating Gronow's reminiscences. I just think there was room for a fuller description. For those interested in the Regency period I would highly recommend a copy of Gronow to complement their library. He has an eye for a catchy tale and his gossipy observations are great fun.

The original volumes can still be found for sale in used bookstores if you want the original unedited versions. They tend to be rather expensive though. As an alternative you can subscribe (a paid subscription) to the Regency Library which is an internet service which is currently serialising the volume you can find them on:

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