18 January 2014

An Elegant Madness: High Society in Regency England

Summary from Goodreads:
The Regency period was one of the most turbulent ages in British history, one that spanned the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, that witnessed unprecedented industrial progress, artistic accomplishment, and violent social unrest and--paradoxically--the most sparkling social scene English high society has ever enjoyed. Under the influence of the obese, loose-moraled Prince of Wales (to whom Jane Austen dedicated Emma), the Regency was the apex of British decadence, an era of lavish parties and relentless bed-hopping that set a standard for elegance and vulgarity. With wit and lively style, Venetia Murray chronicles the scandals, courtships, and daily life of these aristocrats, and evokes the tempestuous times of the early industrial and French revolutions. Sumptuously illustrated with rare contemporary cartoons, prints, diaries, and caricatures, An Elegant Madness is a book readers of social history and historical romance alike will devour.

Well, since I started writing again, I've had some ongoing story ideas. One of these is set in the Regency and I realized that, since I loathe sloppy historical research, I better do some background reading so I at least start out on the right foot.  You'd think I had already done this given my love of Jane Austen and my concentration in Regency historicals when I read romance novels, but I haven't.  I took a bit of a shotgun approach and rounded up a list of titles, starting with Venetia Murray's An Elegant Madness.

This is a nice book.  It covers major parts of the Regency culture - manners, marriages, views on morality, money, inheritance, food, clothing, etc.  The larger-than-life historical figures of the era - led by the very large Prinny himself - are visited in turn.  The Patronesses of Almack's pop up frequently through their many letters and a number of caricatures and engravings are used to illustrate how the masses viewed High Society.

But the book did feel somewhat jumbled.  Chapters sometimes seemed to veer from the subject - a later chapter about country houses moved from house parties, to how children were raised, to the beginning of the Reform movement which was a bit hard to follow.  The annotation could have been better, in my opinion.  Footnotes and endnotes were used for sources but instances of quotes in French were not translated (Google Translate has trouble with idioms) and an entire menu from one of Prinny's fetes, over 100 dishes, was listed in French.  It was very hard to read, since I don't speak or read French fluently, so the necessity of including the entire menu was lost on me.  I would have appreciated a translation in an appendix.

This is a decent overview for the curious reader, but research-wise I'll need to keep digging.

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