An Elegant Madness

High Society in Regency England

by Venetia Murray
Viking Press/Penguin Putnam

Review by Cathleen Myers

As far as we’re concerned, there can never be too many books about life among the decadent, debauched but oh so elegant upper classes during the English Regency. If you like Regency romances, you’ll enjoy this dizzying tour of the Real Thing. Venetia Murray’s beautifully detailed book visits all our favorite stomping grounds from Brighton to Bath; from Almack’s ("Seventh Heaven of the fashionable world"), to "All Max," the hottest dive on the East End; from the cozy and exclusive world of the Clubs to that Regency Disneyland, Vauxhall. We read with utter fascination her chapters on the Great Dandies (Beau Brummel among them) and on the Career Courtesans and Cyprians ("A Mistress Had a Better Deal Than a Wife" reads the very accurate chapter heading), though we advise approaching the chapter on Regency eating and drinking habits ("The Age of Indulgence") with caution. Just reading it is likely to raise your cholesterol level!

Murray’s Waterloo is costume history - a common stumbling block of cultural historians, most of whom have apparently never worn Regency costume, have no idea how a corset works or feels, and haven’t the foggiest notion of why the Empire line remained so popular for so long (perhaps because it flatters both the slim and the full figure?). Her decision to illustrate the book exclusively with cartoons from the Regency age is also problematic. While the Regency was one of the first great ages of caricature and while one can certainly tell a great deal about a society from its cartoons, they aren’t a very reliable guide to period fashion! On the other hand, Murray (unlike the ruthless cartoonists!) draws one of the most balanced portraits of the Prince Regent himself, recounting not only his debaucheries but his serious patronage of the arts and sciences and his considerable charm.

The book’s final chapter "On the Eve of Reform" takes the Regency to its logical conclusion with its discussion of how the combination of emerging technology, rapid transit, political reform and religious revival gradually brought an end to the Age of Pleasure. Sigh.

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