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Froth and scandal

Our Tempestuous Day by C. Erickson, Robson, pounds 17.95 Passion and Principle by J. Aiken Hodge, Murray, pounds 15.99
In 1840, the 70-year-old Lady Holland, once doyenne of the Whig party, had been staying with her hosts for six weeks when her irritation finally got the better of her. She demanded to know why she was left to eat alone on Sunday mornings. On being told that they were "in church", she was intrigued and volunteered to join the congregation the following week. This experiment to bring God to one of the survivors of the Revolution generation - the 1780s - failed at the outset. After the service, Lady Holland replied good-naturedly to Lord Russell that she had liked none of it, save for the pretty poem that began "Our Father", which reminded her of something, "though I knew not what".

This lack of understanding between the generations forms the central theme of Carolly Erickson's book. George IV was Regent for 10 years, between 1810 and 1820, while his father lingered on in healthy imbecility. Like Lady Holland, the Prince of Wales was a relic of the 1780s. To subsequent generations it was the most permissive of decades, characterised by the louche adherents of the Devonshire House circle. Intoxicated by the prosperity generated by an expanding empire, and encouraged by Rousseau's injunction to "be natural", the Eighties youth made a virtue out of personal freedom. By 1810, the extravagant head-dresses and dyed-blue wigs of the 1780s remained the symbols of a licentious age, objects of derision similar to the giggles that the 1960s styles provoke today.

Our Tempestuous Day is an original and sensitive portrayal of a troubled era. The 'Day' of the title is apt since the book is less a narrative than a kaleidoscope of views, impressionist fragments of a scene captured at different hours on a single blustery day. Any slight embellishments in Our Tempestuous Day are as nothing compared with the tabloid claims that enliven Jane Aiken Hodge's Passion and Principle. "A servant met in a corridor by a guest was liable to be dismissed, or raped." Really? Silly errors mar some of the fun: there are wrong titles, wrong dates and, curiously, a sex-change for a duchess's illegitimate child.

The subtitle of the book, "The Lives and Loves of Regency Women", is a misnomer, since almost half of Hodge's subjects were celebrities of the 1780s. Calling them Regency women is like writing a book on women of the 1990s and having Marianne Faithfull and Twiggy on the cover. The book lumps the exuberant leaders of the Devonshire House circle, Georgiana Duchess of Devonshire and her sister Lady Bessborough, with the succeeding generation of social reformers. Poor Elizabeth Fry and Hannah More, a Quaker and Evangelical respectively, would have been outraged at the comparison.

The contradictory elements of Passion and Principle complement Erickson's theme of dissonance. In his youth, the Prince Regent was one of the most popular men in London, but to contemporaries in 1810 he was a grotesque figure whose ridiculous Brighton Pavilion evoked the sybaritic practices within. In 1812 the country seemed on the brink of disaster, besieged at home by the Luddites and threatened by the French fleet. Victory in 1815 brought home thousands of servicemen, and with them the attendant troubles of rising crime, unemployment and radical ferment, culminating in the Peterloo massacre in 1819. Irreligion was blamed as the cause, though not everyone understood or appreciated the rise of evangelical Protestantism: the middle-aged Lord Melbourne protested, "Things have come to a pretty pass when Religion is allowed to invade Private Life."

Despite its short length, the complexity and richness of the Regency period makes it a remarkable decade. Our Tempestuous Day joins a list of distinguished books on the era and succeeds in holding its own. Passion and Principle, by contrast, is a jolly romp through the scandal pages, light and frothy, more Georgette Heyer than George IV.