Sunday, January 12, 2020

4. The Age of Scandal by T. H. White

I got this at the Concordia book fare.  It was the nice penguin edition that attracted me and the potential of the contacts that sealed the deal.  It brought me back to my college days where I studied history.  This period really didn't interest me at the time but I knew from some readings that there was often quite juicy tidbits of "civilized" European craziness in the 18th and 19th century and it sounded like this book had a lot of that.  Also, as themes of elite behaviours and gossipy obsession with social media dominate today, I thought reading about how it happened in the past might help inform my understanding of our current predicament.

White's main thesis (after a weird little intro where he seems to argue for a British aristocracy) is that between the Age of Romance and the Age of Reason, which traditionally has been seen as a bit stiff, there actually was a lively, dramatic period in Britain that he labels the Age of Scandal.  He then writes chapters on a wide range of subjects (ranging from views on religion, to discipline to ears) and on several specific scandals (the short-lived queen of Denmark, The Gunnington twins) and on individuals (Horace Walpole, Hervey, de Sade), most of which I had been ignorant. 

I don't think it is unfair to say that this isn't a rigorous work of scholarship.  It is peppered with quotations, many without reference (which I appreciated; I always feel compelled to read foot and endnotes and it kills my flow).  His argument is not unconvincing but also I don't think he is trying too aggressively so I don't imagine he got a lot of counter-argument (probably a naive assumption on my part as this is history; somebody was outraged somewhere).  It's just a lot of fun and the chapters are short.  There were some extraordinary little adventures.  I also enjoyed the specifics on the toiletry of the time (interesting that the french aristocracy were considered dirtier and smellier than the english) as well as the brutality of the culture of discipline.  The notion that though still very much an aristocratic country, the closeness in general of the upper classes and the plebians made for an oddly dynamic polity.  The mechanism for this, according to White, was the mob.  The lords and ladies would get more and more out of control and then there would be a riot.  This made me think of God is an Englishman, where a mob destroying a cotton mill played a central role.

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