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on 18 February 1999
An Elegant Madness: High Society in Regency England by Venetia Murray $29.95, Viking Press
Ventia Murray has provided an interesting and well-documented look into the turbulant transition period between the French Revolution (1791) and the start of the Reform Period (1830). This time has been the fertile ground for many fiction writers, from Georgette Heyer to Jill Barnett, and every month more books come out using it as a backdrop. "An Elegant Madness" along with "The Regency Companion"(Sharon Laudermilk and Teresa L. Hamlin) provides the historical backdrop. Murray has done extensive research, and while to long-time readers of Regency novels, the material will seem familiar, she has placed the period within the context of political and economic history as well as the society. One particularly helpful element of "An Elegant Madness" is that for the first time, a reader will have a sense of how expensive the Regency was in today's modern-day terms. Murray uses a rate of exchange of 50 to 1. For example, "..an item in 1812 was 200 (pounds) it would 10,000 (pounds) today..." Best of all, she has included an extensive bibliography for those who want to go further into the time period, and an index so you can track down that elusive fact in the future. I'd recommend this book to readers who have a grounding in the time period (so you recognize the names), but are interested in the history rather than the fiction.
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on 22 July 1999
While very interesting and raising some interesting points Venetia Murray's book "An Elegant Madness" is shockingly badly researched and very sloppily edited. Do not rely on this book if you are not familiar with the Regency period - and do not quote from this book as truth, always use a secondary source to back up anything read in this book.
Errors are continually repeated.
She seems to have a permanant state of confusion with the Spencer (Earl Spencer) family and the Cavendish family (the Duke's of Devonshire). The 1st Earl Spencer had two daughters, Georgiana and Henrietta. Georgiana married the 5th Duke of Devonshire and had two daughters, Georgiana and Harriet. Murray consistently and continually confuses these two generations and families despite listing seven separate books on the family in her bibliography and a number of other associated books that would provide information on them. I am starting to wonder if she read the books at all - if she read that many surely she wouldn't have made those mistakes.
She calls the Marquis of Queensbury "Old Q" in fact, 'Old Q' was the Duke of Queensbury, a completely different person.
Her description of Beau Brummell is based on entirely apocryphal and disproved events. She places their first meeting on a salacious and since disproved story by Captain Gronow. She says that the Prince and Brummell fell out at an event in 1814 when Brummell insulted the Prince by asking his companion, "Who is your far friend'. This was not the case. Not only did this even actually occur a year earlier in 1813, but it was probably at least a year after the Prince and Brummell fell out. She also fails to show the influence of Brummell on clothing. She says his dress was 'leather breeches for daytime' in actual fact this was the common dress in the 1790's and not at all what Brummell introduced. No one was admitted into his dressing room either - they were entertained in his drawing room while he put on his neck cloths in the dressing room next door with the doors open.
She misdates the arrival of gas in London as 1816 - it came in 1808 and was in common use by 1815.
She continually misnames people - Lord William Pitt-Lennox for the Duke of Richmonds son Lord William Lennox. She calls James Wedderburn Webster, James Webster Wedderburn.
She confuses the Duke of Kent's mutiny in Gibralter (undated in her book but occuring in 1802) with a mutinous incident a few years earlier in Canada. She also says the Duke sentenced the man to 900 lashes, it was actually 999. But the mutiny in Gibralter was not over his cruelty, it was over his excessive regulations which prevented the men from drinking on Christmas Day.
She blandly uses 'after the war' as a statement - but doesn't state what war - one must assume she means after Waterloo. In which case it would be after the 'wars'. Given that the Napoleonic Wars dominated all but a few years of the 1788-1830 she chooses as the scope for her book she has almost no information of the effect of these wars on the country.
She quotes many things out of context to - the list of her errors, omissions and flat out misconstructions could go on.
Frankly while I am interested in much of the information she brings up, those things that I know about or have researched further have shown that she has very little discipline either in her note taking or her ability to put it into its correct context.
She jumps around her chosen 50 year period with little regard to the development of society, London or social mores. So she states with certainty it was a violent age and people were mugged etc. Yet the difference in London in the 1780's when people were robbed in the carriages in broad daylight in London streets, and in 1810 when this was extremely uncommon, is not developed at all.
It is not like Murray has put new interpretations on facts - she has taken too many events and given them incorrect dates, people or information.
This is an exceptionally sloppy book, littered with errors and should be read with extreme caution. I have only listed some of the errors in the book here.
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on 7 November 2009
There are some very negative reviews on this book, both in Great Britain and the U.S....well what can I say? If you are---or consider yourself---a historian of the era, of course you're going to be fixated on the minutae of it.

The point is, I loved the book. It gave me the best overview of that brief period, a time best compared to the "roaring 20's" or the 1960's in being a really unique time when anything went, and all the old mores of society were out the window. Just as in the 1920's, when post WWI women cut their short for first time, in Regency England young men and women, in the upheaval post-French Revolution, did away with hair powder and the heavy weighted velvets and laces, jewels, face paint, beauty spots, and wigs of the past few hundred years, and wore lighter more body defining clothes. Young women, and in particular those of the cutting edge set, would wear clinging materials,with no or little underclothing and in warm summer weather wet the dress down to be, essentially, see-through. Visualize this, versus the heavy clothes of, say, Marie Antoinette (no, not an English woman, but an arbiter of fashion, from just one generation before). The young women often had their hair cut shorter and curled. Young men for the first time went to shorter hair than had been seen previously as well. These are just examples, and a person may say they're trivial, but outward appearance often does define great changes in how a "new, young" generation sees and relates to, the world.

The influence of Beau Brummell, a fascinating person, very influential on society and fashion, could take up whole books. His main decree on the subject of male fashion was, first, CLEANLINESS: of the person, the clothing, then simplicity but always clean and neat. This was a radical new thought! Up until then bathing routinely, fresh air--had both been considered almost definitely ways to become seriously ill. Not since the ancient Romans, to my knowledge, had Western Europeans been encouraged to bathe! He influenced the entire society, and, another clothing change he encouraged, the wearing of the "cravat" which became de rigeur, eventually morphed into the male "tie" of today. Brummell, son of a valet, who rose to become THE insider of the inside set, which included the young Prince Regent, also led the way from the brightly colored clothes men had worn for centuries to simple black and whites that became rigidly routine for men, right up until the end of the 20th Century.

In short, the book gives you an overview of the period. It is NOT about crime, disease, (not really about the lower classes at all) economics or politics. It covers a certain "something" that made that generation special.

Jane Austin, a clergyman's daughter, living in the country, and poor, was part of the era but not really of it.

Look at some of the line drawings (from the era itself) in the book. The young men and women having dancing "practice parties" in homes in the daytime, to learn that sexy dance, the waltz....see how short many of the young women's dresses are. It was a state of mind, of freedom and youth.

Another generation, which began as it were in about 1820, when Queen Victoria came to the Throne, was the antithesis of the Regency era, with the rigid morality, rules for almost every aspect of life, hypocrasy, and puritanism we associate with "Victorianism". This overcame all that the Regency period had been. Women's dresses were, again, long and heavy and hid their lower limbs. Their hair was worn long, and usually up on the head after marriage. Men wore facial hair, heavy dark clothing, and the sense of freedom that had briefly influenced all of Europe and England since the American and then the French Revolution was ended.

I recommend this book to anyone interested in small parts of history that crop up every so often; usually battered down later, but influential for all that, as well as for anyone who has ever picked up a "Regency Romance" of any kind; or is simply interested in a unique time period made quite real for the reader in this book.
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on 22 February 1999
Dr.Johnson once remarked that all works which describe manners "require notes in sixty or seventy years". In her book "An Elegant Madness" Venetia Murray provides an amusing and readable compendium of manners which will serve instead for readers of Regency fiction. Particularly devotees and students of Jane Austen will appreciate the scope of Venetia Murray's research, and (dare one say) her almost journalistic eye for a striking fact. However, as the author herself points out in the Preface, her book is about the manners and customs of a small, elegant and often dissolute elite. Jane Austen writes of the more numerous upper class, desperately anxious not commit or become involved with impropriety of any kind, but nevertheless obedient to many dictates of the "beau monde".It is necessary to know what these were and Venetia Murray's book tells us.
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on 16 April 1999
A very entertaining book, but a little disjointed. One thing seems to lead to another, and pretty soon you are reading about something that has nothing to do with the chapter title. The Regency period was named for the Prince Regent, but nowhere is there even a thumbnail biography of the Prince. Any reader who does not have a thorough understanding of the period will miss many references (i.e. his problems with the Princess of Wales). Call me a Midwestern hayseed, but I don't speak French! There are many phrases, sentences and even a 3 page menu that are written entirely in French with no English translations. A footnote or an appendix would have been very helpful. I don't know why authors assume all their readers are fluent in French. However, despite these faults, the book was an excellent read.
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on 10 March 2000
I found this book a light and delicious souffle. Academic history it is not: but a great read for the general public interested in daily life, love, money - and all the things we all care about as much now as we did two hundred years ago - Yes, and Yes again. Full of amusing stories, witty, very well researched and exactly what the author claims in her Preface. She writes "'An Elegant Madness: High Society in Regency England' was never intended to be taken as a sociological survey: the aim of the bok was to convey the mood of the Regency, to entertain my readers, and, perhaps, to enlighten a few.' I am not surprised the hardback edition in England received such flattering reviews from eminent historians such as Christopher Hibbert and Philip Zeigler. I quite agree with them!. As for the few negative customer comments I can only suppose they come from amateur historians with a personal agenda.
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