It seems part of the psychological make-up of the English people to bestow power upon the wealthy and privileged; whilst at the same time depriving them of the right to privacy.
And as we’ve all recently seen in the General Election, you have to be tough to play for high stakes; winner takes all, and unsuccessful opponents lose everything.
Today’s obsession with the private lives of celebrities and those “in high places” finds its parallel in Georgian and Regency England, where the public was hungry for moral lapses among the aristocracy. This fascinating and scrupulously researched book shines a spotlight onto a universal aspect of human behaviour – but the scholarly focus is upon how eighteenth century society reacted to it, thus enriching our knowledge of the social history of the time.
Aristocratic rakes are the stuff of novels set in Regency England. One of the most striking things about the book is how intensely the opinion-makers of the time wanted to hold on to the idea of “rank co-existing with honour”, despite all evidence to the contrary. Another outstanding aspect of Susan Law’s account is the hypocrisy of the society as the popular press indulged itself in moralising and judgementalism, along with minimal respect for confidentiality, slander and libel, thus feeding a voracious appetite by the public. But I was also surprised by the disregard that the adulterous aristocrats themselves paid to covering up their tracks, and their failure to have due regard to the ominipresence of their servants. Tumbled bedclothes, two dents in the bed, and hair powder on the pillowcases seem obvious tracks to cover up!
Susan Law examines the craze of the 1790’s for printed court reports of adultery trials, which continued through to the late 1830’s with the popularity of the “Crim Con Gazette”. She examines the changes that took place up until the 1832 Great Reform Act which altered the way the nation saw itself in terms of social hierarchies – opening up “previously unthinkable possibilities for the middle class”. Certainly in the early part of the period it is very noticeable that often “cuckolded” husbands (themselves equally guilty of adultery) might be awarded huge damages and then go on to an honourable career in high office, while adulterous women were far more likely to be “sent away” in shame and have their lives ruined.
Chief among the adulterers later on of course was the Prince Regent, and I was amused to read the opinion of Theresa, sister of the Earl of Morley, who wrote in a letter “’tis dreadful to think of the open profligacy of that Monster…. we must all go to the dogs should he ever unfortunately come to the throne.”
To the non-academic reader, the most interesting parts of this book are when the author gives accounts of specific cases, such as that of Lord Ellenborough and his young wife Jane. There are among these stories accounts that will draw a variety of different responses from the reader; for as the blurb points out, the different stories are passionate, scandalous, poignant and tragic.
A fascinating insight into eighteenth century social history, with plenty of material which will give us cause to reflect upon the preoccupations of today’s Britain as well.