Books: Stump the pewter on a bit of muslin

High Society by Venetia Murray Viking pounds 20
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The Independent Culture
The Regency itself - when the Prince of Wales (later George IV) ruled in place of his "mad" father, George III - lasted for just nine years: 1811 to 1820. But the Regency period, in its widest, cultural sense, is usually taken to mean the first 30 years of the 19th century; Murray has extended it still further to include the first Regency crisis in 1788.

These years, according to the author, have become "synonymous with an elegance and style which are unique in the history of English culture". It was undoubtedly a time of great cultural fertility, a golden age in the fields of architecture, art, literature and even science; it was also an age when the upper classes - the subjects of this book - were notorious for their gluttonous living, heavy gambling and sexual promiscuity.

Setting the greatest example of "double standards" for the rest of high society was the Regent himself. "In 1788," writes Murray, "when the question of a Regency first arose, the Prince of Wales, as he then was, had already made himself notorious for his wild behaviour and appalling extravagance. Yet he was a man of enormous charm, intelligence and taste, with impeccable manners when it mattered."

That he is particularly remembered for his stylish mode of dress is due mainly to the influence of George "Beau" Brummell, the archetypal Regency Dandy. The grandson of a valet, Brummell rose (thanks to the fortune accumulated by his father during his time as private secretary to the Prime Minister) to become a close friend of the Prince of Wales and the undisputed arbiter of fashion - a supreme example of the flexibility of society even then. It was he, Murray informs us, who replaced the vulgarity of late 18th- century dress - all "velvets and silks, jewels and make-up" - with the more austere uniform of the dandies: "dark blue coat with brass buttons, leather breeches, top boots and stiff white cravat".

Brummell did indeed, as Murray states, care more for the "cut and style of a coat" than its "ability to startle". Yet she is wrong to attribute this to the rules of fashion becoming "more democratic". For the cult of dandyism was very much one of exclusivity; in any case, many of Brummell's innovations - such as the wearing of pantaloons and hessians boots - were a patriotic response to the prevailing trends in Napoleonic France (where knee-breeches were worn by the new Imperial elite).

There is a good section on the colourful slang used by the Regency bucks: "blunt" and "rhino" was money, while being able to "stump the pewter" was to have ready cash; an expensive prostitute was "a bit of muslin", whereas a courtesan was a "prime article"; a "bolt to the village" meant going to London; a "Town Tabby" was an aristocratic dowager; and an "Ace of Spades" was a widow.

We learn, too, that the term "blue-stocking" derives from a club of that name set up by Elizabeth Montagu as a meeting-place for aristocratic ladies with literary leanings. The nickname was coined by Hannah More, one of its members, when she described the company in a poem entitled "Bas-Bleu".

An even more famous literary salon was hosted by the Berry sisters in North Audley Street. Once engaged, Mary Berry estimated that pounds 2,000 a year (pounds 100,000 in today's money) was the minimum she and her future spouse would need to survive in society. It is instructive that pounds 100 of this income was ear-marked for wine, whereas just pounds 58 was needed to pay the annual wages of their four females servants (a housekeeper, a cook, a house maid and a lady's maid). Such was the disparity in wealth between the upper and lower classes of Regency England.

It hardly helped that the greatest burden of taxation was indirect (including levies on malt, housing, clothes and even food) and therefore fell on all classes; or that when income tax was first imposed in 1799 - to pay for the war with France - it was set at just two shillings in the pound for those with incomes in excess of pounds 200 a year, with a descending scale of rates down to an exemption level of pounds 60.

Affairs of honour were an integral part of Regency life. Contrary to Murray's assertion, however, the famous duel between the two cabinet ministers, Castlereagh and Canning, was not simply a result of a disagreement over the management of a military campaign, but rather the former's response to the latter's underhand attempt to have him replaced as War Secretary. Such occasional lapses are more than offset by the book's generous allocation of colour illustrations.

Though often interesting, and at times entertaining, the main problem with High Society is that its chapters are organised in a bitty, thematic way that gives little sense of continuity. It is also rather lightweight: by relying mainly on well-used printed sources, it breaks little new ground; but nor does it pretend to. Murray's intention was presumably to provide a light-hearted, colourful sketch of high living during the Regency period - and in this somewhat limited objective she has largely succeeded.