Reviewed by: Hallie Rubenhold
Author: Hannah Greig
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Price (RRP): £25
“What are they, who are they, and what constitutes them people of fashion?” wrote Lord Chesterfield about the elite circle known as the beau monde. References to it fill Sheridan’s plays and the era’s novels. However, most modern admirers of Georgian literature won’t have an understanding of the phrase’s true meaning, or its implications. Hannah Greig’s book seeks to set this right by offering a study of the 18th century’s most powerful social and political players.
As Greig explains, after the Glorious Revolution of 1688, the need to be seen among the benches in parliament drove the ruling class to London, and thereby created a fashionable season. Each autumn London’s West End became the scene of a great exodus from the countryside into the metropolis, where entire households, with their boxes of family diamonds, expensive silver and richly adorned clothing, decamped to their luxurious townhouses. It was in this urban venue of consumption and display, as opposed to the isolated setting of the country estate, that members of the beau monde were able publicly to define their group identity.
However, this was not a set that opened itself to newcomers: rather, its ranks were strictly controlled by a combination of factors. While aristocratic lineage and land ownership were important in defining one’s membership, so too was the display of elite personal connections, appropriate behaviour and possessions. As Greig writes, the beau monde was, in essence, “a community that can be roughly estimated as consisting of a few hundred individuals in any one year, and most probably no more than three or four thousand over the century as a whole”.
Historians have often argued for the growing fluidity of 18th-century society, but Greig demonstrates how well policed the upper echelons remained. Membership was so select that even those ‘sharpers’ attempting to pose as fashionable, well-connected gentlemen had no hope of gaining admittance. Instead, they had to settle for defrauding the shopkeepers and purveyors to the great families, rather than members of the great families themselves.
Unsurprisingly, it was chiefly the women of the beau monde who regulated the boundaries of group identity, both in their roles as hostesses and participants in their husbands’ political lives. Greig draws upon the detailed correspondence of Elizabeth, Lady Hervey, as well as the Countess of Strafford, in documenting how valuable connections were formed and maintained. Similarly, it was the women who bore the brunt of any scandal, as the story of Lady Sarah Bunbury’s 12-year exile to the fringes of her brother’s estate illustrates.
Although the pages of Greig’s work sparkle with lush descriptions of jewels, clothing and colourful pictures of elite life, it is nevertheless a book aimed at a more academic readership. In short, those looking for a romp through aristocratic drawing rooms won’t find it here. However, readers seeking a meticulously researched exploration of the world of the beau monde won’t be disappointed.
Hallie Rubenhold is an 18th-century social historian and the author of Lady Worsley’s Whim (Vintage, 2009)