T.H. White's book is a non-fiction description of the 18th century world of the "Haut Ton," of debutantes and Lords, told with charm and humour.
As Reay Tannahill's introduction to the 1993 Folio edition of this book says, it paints a picture of 18th century British society which is "outrageously partisan, appallingly opinionated, 100% politically incorrect, and highly entertaining from first to last."
The author is, or course, best remembered today for his novels about Merlin and King Arthur, but this delightful little work, first published in 1950, is at least as worthy of being remembered. Imagine Quentin Letts with all the humour and none of the vindictiveness, and you have some idea of his approach to life.
To give you a picture of the chatty style of the book, White begins by bemoaning "the end of civilisation in England" which statement he justifies by pointing out that when he was an undergraduate at Cambridge "the Master of a college was a fabulous being" who lived a life of surpassing luxury, but when he last stayed at the university he lunched with two masters of colleges and both had to help with the washing-up after the meal.
His descriptions of the differences between society in the 18th and 20th centuries are entertaining as well as fascinating. After describing how much faster various activities were routinely carried out in his own day compared with two centuries before - "The 18th century managed to eat so much more than we do because it ate more slowly. It could drink more, by drinking all night" he concludes that
"It would be interesting to find out whether the pulse rate has gone up."
As White describes, the world of the aristocracy and the ton was a much smaller body than even the highest levels of society today. At the start of George III's reign there were only 174 peers (there were nearly a thousand when White was writing and rather more, including life peers, today.)
The book describes many of the most notorious and interesting characters and events of the 18th century: it stretches a little into the 19th, about as far as William IV, but mostly it concentrates on the reign of George III. Brummell is mentioned four times in the book, but usually as a source. The chapter "A perfect tragedy" is one of the best accounts I have ever read of the circumstances leading up to the trial and execution of Admiral Byng, who was shot, as Voltaire put it, "pour encourager les autres." Other chapters cover the church, Doctor Johnson, schools, and the relationships between men and women, of which White wrote,
"The beauties who were the contemporaries of Walpole lived through romances of such intricacy and splendour that Hollywood in delirium could scarecely do them justice."
(though they recently had a good attempt at one of the most extraordinary such stories with "The Duchess [DVD] " starring Kiera Knightley.)
If you've every wondered what the reality behind the novels of Jane Austen or Georgette Heyer was like, or have considered trying to write a story set in that period yourself and are looking for somewhere to start your research, you will not do better than this book.
If you like this book, a similar volume which gives a lot more details of the facts of the period, and is probably more accessible although the prose is not quite so beautiful or amusing, is "Georgette Heyer's Regency World by Jennifer Kloester.