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AN Elegant Madness: High Society in Regency England Hardcover – March 1, 1999

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Editorial Reviews Review

Regency England was, according to Venetia Murray, a "glorious paradox": High society placed a premium on civilized living, yet vulgarity, gluttony, and moral vicissitude were considered fashionable--and socially acceptable--vices. In An Elegant Madness, Murray examines this polarity, providing readers with an accurate, entertaining, easy-to-read portrayal that conveys the mood of the period, focusing primarily on the oft-paradoxical social practices and attitudes of the English aristocracy.

Generally understood as a 50-year period beginning, as with the French Revolution, just before the dawn of the 19th century, Regency England (or, more precisely, its uppermost stata) remained, in many ways, oblivious to and safely distanced from the ravages of the Napoleonic Wars consuming the continent. The tone of society, according to Murray, tends to be set by its titular head; thus, the paradox and political detachment of the Regency Period emanated primarily from its leader, the Prince Regent. The carefree Regent, who would reign as King George IV from 1820 to 1830, was known not only as "The First Gentleman of Europe," but also as a dedicated hedonist, drunkard, and lecher. Elegance and vulgarity characterized the rest of the English aristocracy, as well, and Murray's chapters clearly illustrate how Regency high society appropriated for itself the same duality as their leader's. Her chapters, each a freestanding study of its own, examine fashions of the period, the (exorbitant) cost of living, London high society, clubs and taverns, the common practice of taking a mistress, the country home, and the seaside resort. She embellishes her study with cartoons, prints, and caricatures of the period, all of which contribute to our understanding of this unique period of English history. --Bertina Loeffler Sedlack

From Publishers Weekly

History buffs, Anglophiles and perhaps even fans of Regency romances will enjoy this survey of the notoriously flamboyant English Regency period (here covering the years 1780-1830). In 13 well-researched chapters studded with excerpts from letters, diaries, journals and memoirs, Murray offers a lively portrait of upper-class life during a time marked by "elegance and style which are unique in the history of English culture." The influx of thousands of aristocratic refugees from the French Revolution spurred a frenzied embrace of French fashions, as well as the Prince Regent's ostentatious style, and transformed England during those 50 tumultuous years. Meanwhile, support of the Napoleonic war and the effects of the Industrial Revolution led to economic chaos: "in some cases rents were increased five-fold between 1790 and 1830." As the rich got richer and the poor got poorer, the vicious Luddite riots protested the unemployment caused by the introduction of new machinery. Despite endemic violence, there was no organized police force. Murray does a wonderful job of bringing to life the era's notablesAincluding Beau Brummel, Jane Austin, Wellington, Mrs. Fitzherbert and Lady Caroline LambAand observing the profligate spending habits and social inanities of the upper-crust British in the post-Waterloo era.
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 317 pages
  • Publisher: Viking; 1st American ed edition (March 1, 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 067088328X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0670883288
  • Product Dimensions: 6.3 x 1.1 x 9.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (33 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #904,835 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

If it were possible to give this book half a star I would.
I just think there are so many really good Regency Books out there that there is no need to waste reading time on something that is just going to mislead.
Harriet Ponsonby
She quotes many things out of context to - the list of her errors, omissions and flat out misconstructions could go on.
A. Woodley

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

256 of 268 people found the following review helpful By A. Woodley on July 21, 1999
Format: Hardcover
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.
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134 of 139 people found the following review helpful By bookjunkiereviews on January 31, 2001
Format: Paperback
Why does this book have such contradictory reviews from newspapers and magazines, compared to some of the readers? I read this book last year, and again this year when I finally decided to acquire my own copy despite all the problems I had with the book.
Firstly, this book is indeed entertaining, with some very good sketches and with lots of interesting little snippets about the lives of the richest and noblest members of British society in the first decades of the 19th century. It makes for a good read from that point of view, especially if you are more interested in the feel of how the "ton" or high society lived than in historical accuracy.
The book is not meant to be a history of the entire Regency period, and nor is it meant to be a political history. On the other hand, I would have liked to have seen a little more reference to the major political figures of the day, given that politics was as important as economics to the aristocrats of the Regency period - even if they often chose to ignore both. It is certainly a pity that there is little discussion of the Prince Regent's association with Fox and the Whigs, or for that matter on what was happening politically. Even for a mostly social history of the elite, the omission of some major political events and trends is surprising.
I do have the same problems with the book that have been so elegantly expressed by others. One of the things that shocked me was that Miss Murray claimed to have done all her research with first-hand sources and in fact thanks the staff at the Windsor Castle library and so forth. The second thing that shocked me even more were the enconiums paid her by several eminent personages who should have noted some of the problems.
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51 of 53 people found the following review helpful By Filicity on April 19, 2000
Format: Hardcover
Wow - this book as elicited quite a few reviews hasn't it? I was really interested in reading it as I love this period, but I read the reviews here carefully and wondered about the seeming huge polarity in popularity of the book.
I didn't really know much about the Regency times and would have quite happily accepted the rave reviews - it is after all a pretty book. I was very interested in the detail in some of the reviews here which cited specific problems with Murray's sources - so I checked out the books. Its pretty easy to get hold of Roger Fulford's book "the Royal Dukes" - which Murray says she used as a source for her book - and lo and behold she has misrepresented events.
I then had a look at the a few Brummell biographies in my library including the one she has in her bibliography - and again - Murray misrepresented and misdated events.
What other events has she misdated or mis-represented in this book? I guess I could continue looking - but I have since thrown the book out in disgust.
I guess I just prefer authors who are accurate.
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32 of 36 people found the following review helpful By Harriet Ponsonby on March 10, 2000
Format: Hardcover
If people want a good book on the life and times of the Regency I would strongly suggest something like Amanda Foreman's excellent book 'Georgiana' or Stella Margeton's 'Regency London' or Priestly's "Prince of Pleasure". But don't read this book.
Venetia Murray is clearly cashing in on the popularity of the Regency Market. She doesn't seem to know or understand the period so while the book might sparkle with good prose it is flat on fact. Now shouldn't that be what a non-fiction book should have as its primary concern? Fact? Sure make them nice to read, but they should be factual.
I see someone in a previous review has suggested that people who have written negative reviews must have some kind of agenda - or be amateur historians. Well there is that. I mean how do you know what reviewers backgrounds really are?
Well, unless you know the period well I would suggest that Murray's book is quite convincing. But it is her attention to detail that lets her down - and has caused her to make so many mistakes and to misinterpret events. I would suggest that the easiest way to confirm this for yourselves is a quick look through the index at the back of An Elegant Madness.
There are people that she hasn't fully named - they are just surnames - if she knows who these people are, why hasn't she fully named them. Check an index on a Hibbert book, or Amanda Foreman or any other reputable author and you will see a full name entry - with title and often with dates of birth and death.
Murray hasn't even bothered to match the correct pages in numerous cases - so looking for 'Hazlitt' she claims in the index that he is mentioned on pages 19, 24, 112, 128, and 277. Well a check through the book only shows him appearing on page 19.
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