From the desk of Tracy Hickman:
Several recent histories have popularized Georgian England as “The Age of Scandal” with members of the beau monde starring in colorful “stories of gambling, adultery, high spending, and fast living” (30). Author, lecturer in 18th-century British history, and historical consultant Hannah Greig takes an alternate approach in The Beau Monde. By focusing on the fortunes of the beau monde as a whole, rather than concentrating on the biographies of a few individuals, such as the Duchess of Devonshire, she seeks to present the culture as “a new manifestation of social distinction and a new form of social leadership, one oriented to the changing conditions and contexts of the period.” (31)
After ousting James II from the throne with the support of the English nobility, William III began a series of wars that required him to summon parliament regularly to secure funds for his war chest. Beginning in 1689, the titled nobility came to London for the yearly meeting of parliament and the London season was born.
Illustration of The Beau Monde in St. James Park, by Louis Phillippe Boitard, c. 1749-50
“In particular, the establishment of, and emphasis on, the London season brought fundamental alterations to the routines and responsibilities inherent in elite life. The level of investment made by titled personnel in metropolitan life in the 1700s (in terms of time, money, property, and culture) was unprecedented. Although pleasure seeking was unquestionably a major attraction of metropolitan life, it was politics, and the elite’s unshakeable belief in their right to govern, that made the season’s siren call so compelling.” (233)
Ms. Greig has done a thorough job of synthesizing manuscripts, family papers, newspapers, periodicals, and published works to explore the “world of fashion.” Chapter titles such as “Leading the fashion,” “The court and fashionable display,” and “Politics and the fashionable life” emphasize the importance of fashion in beau monde society. In the 18th-century fashion was aligned to social position and denoted “whatever prevails among the great” (33) rather than our modern concept focused on constantly changing trends and supermodels. A man of fashion was much more than a well-dressed man. He was nearly always a member of the peerage. Expensive clothing and jewelry, an elaborately furnished townhouse in the West End, luxurious carriages, and regular attendance at the opera and select private parties declared a person’s rank and importance. While there were members of the beau monde who were not aristocrats, these were rare exceptions rather than the rule.
Illustration of Vauxhall Gardens, by Thomas Rowlandson c. 1794
A chapter titled “Life in the town” describes the pleasure gardens and theaters used by the beau monde as public venues for parading their distinction to one another, rather than mingling with other levels of society. “Beauties” examines Georgian standards of physical attractiveness and the extra-physical characteristics that beau monde notables were required to possess. For example, Elizabeth and Maria Gunning were famous beauties but, as lower-class interlopers who were merely physically attractive, they had the potential to upset the power structures of the beau monde. For this reason, “social beauty” became the fashionable ideal: grace, morality, virtue, manners, and politeness. One of my favorite chapters “Exile and fraud” tells stories of aristocrats who were banished from fashionable society and outsiders who attempted to pass themselves off as members of the beau monde. Unsurprisingly, exile was reserved for female transgressors of the unwritten codes governing the metropolitan elite; adultery did not result in exile, but an adulterous pregnancy did. As for fraud, this was typically an attempt to pass forged checks or gain expensive goods on credit by masquerading as a duke or earl.
Illustration The Quality Ladder, by Isaac Cruikshank, c. 1793.
“Cruikshank’s ‘ladder’ satirizes the significance of title. A duchess stands at the pinnacle, with a marchioness, countess, viscountess, baroness, and ‘Sir John’s wife’ climbing up the ladder beneather her. At the bottom, an untitled mistress, who has fallen from the ladder, exclaims ‘whenever I try’s to mount I always miss my hold’.” (232)
The Beau Monde is fascinating and comprehensive: I found it difficult to choose examples for this review. Readers interested in history and culture will find an abundance of detail to relish. The opulent jacket photograph of a gentleman’s full dress suit promises to attract bookstore and online browsers alike. Forty black and white illustrations are expertly placed and include cartoons and sketches, formal portraits, architectural drawings, and photographs of clothing and diamond jewelry. The author has also included an appendix detailing linguistic research about the usage of the phrase “beau monde” in the 1700s. I enjoyed this essay’s focus on media: books, periodicals, plays, and poetry grappling with “the perplexing nature of the beau monde’s key characteristics and membership” (250). With a touch of humor, the author admits that a painstaking linguistic approach does not “represent the most dramatic form of historical detection nor does it generate the ingredients for a gripping narrative exposition” (244) but her readers are fairly warned in the introduction that she intends to stay away from rollicking histories of high living. Seventy-five pages of endnotes and bibliography provide sources for all things beau monde. Ms. Greig’s work is an absorbing cultural and political history of aristocratic Georgian England.
5 out of 5 Stars
The Beau Monde: Fashionable Society in Georgian London, by Hannah Greig
Oxford University Press (2013)
Hardcover & eBook (352) pages
Cover image courtesy of Oxford University Press © 2013; text Tracy Hickman © 2015, Austenprose.com
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