First published in 1950, this is my Folio Society edition from 1993, The Age of Scandal is one of White’s lesser known works as nowadays he is most famous for ‘The Once and Future King’ his series based on the tales of King Arthur by Mallory which in turn were adapted by Disney as ‘The Sword in the Stone’ and by Lerner and Loewe as their musical ‘Camelot’. This however is White as a historian although as Raey Tannahill says in her introduction.
It seems wise, therefore, to warn the reader that T.H. White is not – was not, even in his own day – an orthodox historian.
an excursion into eighteenth century history which is outrageously partisan, appallingly opinionated, one hundred percent Politically Incorrect and highly entertaining from first to last.
This is certainly the case, if you like your history of the latter half of the eighteenth century to be apparently written by the gossip pages of the tabloids then this is the book for you and whilst it isn’t a option I had previously considered there is no denying that if any part of, mainly British, history is ripe for such an approach then this is the period. White does stray abroad a little but mainly whilst describing events that include somebody from these isles, the main exception to this is the final chapter but I will come to that in due course. Scandal, gossip and tittle-tattle were the driving force amongst the upper and middle classes for this was the age of the opinionated talkers and the great letter writers and they had much to talk and write about. The main source for White’s book is Horace Walpole, the youngest son of the Prime Minister Sir Robert Walpole (or probably not as one of the scandals covered by White goes on to explain in considerable detail). To describe him as a prolific gossip would be an understatement, his collection of letters was eventually published by Yale University Press in forty-eight volumes and is available to browse online and White quotes him extensively.
The main talker of the time, I hesitate to call him a conversationalist because he preferred to dominate all conversations, was Dr Johnson and he duly gets a chapter all of his own. I hadn’t realised before reading this how sickly a child he was and how much he was still disabled into adulthood. This makes his rise in society at the time all the more remarkable. Another chapter is entitled ‘Men, Women and Herveys’ and this definitely falls in the one hundred percent Politically Incorrect category as it deals with the Hervey family whose males were all famously effeminate and/or eccentric during the time the book covers, Lord Hervey being ridiculed by Alexander Pope as his character Sporus in his poem Epistle to Dr Arbuthnot. The title of the chapter is however a contemporary quote from Lady Mary Wortley Montague who regarded mankind as split into those three categories as surely the Hervey family were not as everyone else, and it is one of these Herveys who is almost certainly the true father of Horace Walpole.
Other chapters are less specific such as ‘Royal Gossip’ which deals with the convoluted lives of George I, George II, George III and William IV, their actions, their courts, various wives and mistresses and anything else juicy that White feels like including. The following chapter though is probably the most enlightening regarding the reasons why the various characters exposed in this book behaved as they did and that is simply entitled ‘Bottom’. It is probably best to quote White directly in his explanation of this term.
In the eighteenth century, but particularly under the Regency, a Gentleman was expected to have ‘Bottom’. It was a word of composite meaning, which implied stability, but also what the twentieth century calls ‘guts’. It meant being able to keep one’s head in emergencies, and, in a financial sense, that one was backed by capital, instead of being an adventurer. Bottom, in fact, was synonymous with courage, coolness and solidity.
This was an age of potentially sudden death either from accident or design, armed robbery was common and even Royalty were not immune from being held up by highwaymen but equally criminals were very much subject to capital punishment for crimes as little as burglary and these were quite a spectator entertainment. There were no anaesthetics, you would bear an operation with fortitude to be truly seen as one of the members of society and being to take your drink even in what now would be regarded as unbelievable excess was also to be expected. Dr Johnson is quoted as saying that he ‘had drunk three bottles of port without being the worse for it’ and two gentlemen are described in the book as having drunk ten bottles of champagne and burgundy between them at one sitting without it being regarded as exceptional. Needless to say a lot of people died young, if the alcohol didn’t get them than any of the various diseases prevalent at the time almost certainly would and the upper classes were trained to maintain the ‘stiff upper lip’ from childhood where violent and often sadistic masters would whip their pupils mercilessly.
I said earlier that I would get to the last chapter and this is one that sort of fits the rest of the book whilst feeling somewhat disjointed from it for it deals with the Marquis de Sade. I suspect that White felt that he couldn’t really write a book about his self described Age of Scandal without including such a notorious character but the way he does is surprisingly sympathetic which is out of sorts with everything that has gone before. However as Raey Tannahill puts it at the end of her introduction.
Whatever he may have lacked in scholarly discipline, Terence Hanbury White still deserves to be enjoyed as one of the last, unrepentant upholders of the rumbustious old tradition of Gibbon and Macaulay.