by David N. Durant (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1996).
Review by Cathleen Myers
Remember the episode of Black Adder III in which the Prince Regent and his wily butler Blackadder successfully get Baldric the bootboy into Parliament by means of a rotten borough whose only voters were a farmer and a dachshund named Colin? Well, Durant’s book tells us, the writers may have had in mind "such famous rotten boroughs as Old Sarum with 7 voters and Dunwich with 14, which each returned two MPs ¾ although Old Sarum had become depopulated in the thirteenth century when Salisbury grew up around the new cathedral, and even in 1714 Dunwich was half under the sea." Once again, truth proves almost as strange as fiction!
We’re tempted to say that Durant’s book is the British answer to those charming but erratic reference books that cheeky American fellow Daniel Pool has been writing about British history (What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew and Dickens’ Fur Coat and Charlotte’s Unanswered Letters). Durant’s book is better researched and more accurate than either of Pool’s and is a useful "quick reference" guide for historical re-creationists, novelists, and history buffs in general. Though lacking Pool’s chatty, novelistic style, Durant is much less gullible - much less willing to accept gossip at face value and explodes a few myths. He is especially skeptical of traditional etymologies: "Posh" - we used to be told - is a cruise ship acronym for "Port Out, Starboard Home." But Durant observes that "Posh" is also 19th century slang for a dandy - a more plausible explanation!
Not surprisingly, his main weakness is in the traditionally "feminine" branches of knowledge ¾ dance, household management, dress, and costume (No one who has actually watched an attractive, graceful woman walk and dance in a well-cut bustle dress from either the 1870’s or 80’s would call the fashion "preposterous"). But Durant’s lucid explanations of political, legal, criminal, artistic and sporting slang will prove useful to American readers of British literature. This is a fun, if slim, bedside book but awfully dear at $24.95. Take our advice and wait until it comes out in paperback!
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