By Hannah Greig

Oxford University Press. 346 pages. £25. ISBN 978-0-19-965900-5

Reviewed by Jim Burns

It would be unusual to come across the term “beau monde” today, other than in an academic context. According to Hannah Greig : “Coined in the 1690s, rarely used by the 1840s, and near obsolete today, the Frenchified phrase ‘beau monde` once enjoyed widespread English usage.” She points out that plays, novels, magazines, popular ballads, all employed it to describe “a social phenomenon specific to the period: the emergence of an urban, primarily metropolitan, ‘world of fashion.”

What needs to be stressed, however, is that to be “fashionable in the eighteenth century was not merely to be modish or trendy.” Rather it involved an “invisible standard” which took in “pedigree, connections, manners, language, appearance, and much else besides.” It might be best described by using another term now obsolete – “ton,” the English version of the French noun for “tone.”  And to be said to have “ton” was not something easily earned. Greig quotes Lord Chesterfield as saying that it happened when “other people of fashion” acknowledged it. I suppose it’s true to say that many groups create situations where certain people are seen as “in” or “out,” depending on their activities and behaviour, but the beau monde went beyond surface mannerisms, and acceptance into their circles meant not just becoming part of an exclusive section of society, but also being given access to people of power and influence.

If, as Greig says, the beau monde began to be noticed from around 1690, was there a reason for this other than that journalists were more active than previously? The “revolution” of 1688 which brought William of Orange to the throne meant that Parliament began to sit on a regular basis. And this, in turn, meant that “the titled and wealthy” were, in Greig’s words, “lured to the metropolis.” They were, after all, the people with the power to influence the court and it was to their advantage to be present if new laws and other matters were going to be debated within a more permanent schedule than had previously existed. Parliament started to assemble annually for the first time, usually between November and June, and as its members brought their families with them the concept of the “season” was established. Later, it was understood to refer to balls and other activities where girls “came out,” and eligible young men and women could hopefully meet suitable marriage partners. But in the period that Greig discusses it had greater significance, though that’s not to say that such alliances were not formed out of the minglings of the beau monde. There was obviously a desire to ensure that a son or a daughter would marry within the framework approved of by the beau monde. And transgressions of the unwritten code could soon lead to ostracism.

The fact of being wealthy, and with relatives who were titled and were members of parliament, did not necessarily mean that one would be welcomed into the beau monde. Grieg refers to the experiences of Gertrude Savile who, after visits to London and Bath, “reflected on her social position.” She seemed to have the right connections and knew many lords and ladies, but somehow could never be invited into the inner circles. Greig has made excellent use of diaries and letters and Savile’s diary records her despair at not being able to meet and converse with those she saw as the beau monde. From what Greig says, she lacked the social airs and graces that might have given her introductions to the sort of people she admired, and who her cousin seemed to be able to cultivate successfully. Money and connections were important but not the only criteria for acceptance. There was that question of “ton” to be considered, and poor Gertrude Savile presumably failed the test.

It is true that the titled were the main constituents of the beau monde. And the burgeoning London press made great play of this fact. Bell’s Weekly Messenger ran a regular column headed FASHIONABLES which recorded deaths, marriages, social events, and general gossip relating to those seen as belonging to the beau monde. Greig’s analysis of entries indicates that the majority of them referred to people with titles or their relatives. She says that a few “parvenus” were mentioned, and she lists a lawyer, an opera star, and an heiress to a West Indian planter as among them, but stresses that they were exceptions to the rule. It does raise the question of how far such people were accepted into the beau monde, or were they simply useful (a lawyer) or a passing fancy?

At this point it might be interesting to see how the eighteenth century beau monde compared to current celebrities, or indeed if any sort of comparison can be made. Greig thinks that the beau monde was “period specific, forged at a moment of social and political change which created a culture and set of conditions peculiar to the 1700s.” Its members were celebrities in their own way, but today’s celebrities, who are often just famous for being celebrated in the press but have little in the way of achievement to support that status, depend solely on the media for their fame. Take away that backing and they simply fade away. That wouldn’t have been true of the beau monde who would have still have had power and influence even if their activities had never been reported in the various publications then available in London. It is true, of course, that the beau monde depended on a combination of exclusivity and publicity for their fame and so created situations where other people, even those who knew that they could never aspire to membership, were persuaded that it was nonetheless something desirable. From the point of view of the beau monde the aim was to convince the broad public, especially in London where it counted, that they were the ones naturally born to govern. As Greig puts it: “Although often grossly ostentatious and relentlessly pilloried, the culture of the ‘beau monde` was much more than an expression of elite frivolity. It was a new manifestation of social distinction, one oriented to the changing conditions and contexts of the period.”

Greig notes that the beau monde was “relentlessly pilloried,” and adds that “a multitude of published commentaries, satires, and broadsides” hit out at the consumerism of fashionable society. Interestingly, she says that such attacks were often targeted at “aspirants,” those who attempted to imitate the dress and social habits of the beau monde. She quotes from poems and other documents which commented in a negative manner on the pretensions of such people. It can be argued that satire in many ways reinforces the status quo, especially if it is mostly aimed at “aspirants,” in that it suggests that they are open to ridicule because they attempt to ape something they can never be a part of. Those they aspire to join can most likely afford to ignore any criticisms of their dress and habits on the basis that such attacks are only mounted by the envious. It’s difficult to know exactly what was the reaction of individuals to satirical jabs aimed specifically at them. There is an illustration by Rowlandson rightly described by Greig as “vicious,” and which shows the fifty-one year old society hostess, Lady Archer, at six stages of her toilet that transform her by artificial means from an unattractive ageing woman to a supposedly youthful beauty. Did it affect Lady Archer, assuming she saw it, or was it shrugged off as mere spite and possibly with a political motive? The beau monde was not a politically cohesive group in the sense of them all agreeing on the same principles and ideas. They may have agreed on the notion that political power should be largely restricted to their circles, but within them there were factions with different opinions as to how that power should be used. Their arguments could be abrasive at times.

Pleasure gardens, primarily Vauxhall and Ranelagh, were places that the beau monde frequented, largely to parade their presence to the general public. It has sometimes been suggested that the pleasure gardens were democratic and that all classes mixed freely, but this is far from the truth. The beau monde kept to themselves and did not invite any form of familiarity from outsiders. Greig quotes from one or two letters in which the temerity of certain people in daring to approach and sometimes engage in conversation with the writers, who saw themselves as members of the beau monde, is sharply commented on. The beau monde came together in certain areas of the pleasure gardens and attendants kept watch to ward off intrusions by outsiders. The same can be said of access to the salons and other places, such as the opera or the theatre, where they assembled. The wider public may have been able to visit the pleasure gardens and the theatres, but they certainly were not encouraged to try to mingle outside their social status. But the beau monde were well aware of the fact that they were, in a sense, on parade, and they played to the gallery in many ways. It has to be acknowledged, of course, that the gallery responded. Many people liked to see what the fashionable were wearing and how many jewels they flaunted. Crowds gathered outside the residencies of the beau monde when it was known that some sort of assembly was taking place, and enthused about the grand carriages that arrived and the people conveyed in them. Greig points out that though there are documented instances of observers commenting favourably on their sightings of the beau monde, there are very few that have the beau monde commenting in any way on their experiences with outsiders, if they had any. She does use a passage from a letter that Lady Sarah Bunbury wrote to Lady Susan O’Brien in which she mentions an encounter with a Mrs Cary. Lady Sarah says that she actually spoke to Mrs Cary, who she had met previously, but adds: “As to her fashions, I am sorry to say they are but too true among the common run of people here, for such figures as one sees at public places are not to be described.” Mrs Cary may have thought that being engaged in conversation was a sign of acceptance, but Lady Sarah certainly didn’t see it that way.

It’s a fact that with contemporary female celebrities there is often an emphasis on their attractiveness, and the same was true of the ladies of the beau monde, though with some important qualifications. In 1776 the Morning Post published a “Scale of Bon Ton,” a list that graded a dozen fashionable women “according to their beauty, figure, elegance, wit, sense, grace, expression, sensibility, and principles.” The Duchess of Devonshire and the Duchess of Gordon headed the chart. A little earlier, the London Chronicle had published a “Scale of Beauties,” with the Duchess of Devonshire again high on the list. But, as Greig is quick to emphasise, “the values presumed by contemporaries to comprise their beauty were closely tied to ideas of behaviour, manners, and other qualities that were perceived to make these women fit and proper holders of their social station.” It does need to be acknowledged, too, that Greig raises the important question of whether or not the frequent references to “beauties” were still a form of “fundamental cultural subjugation? For all these women’s evident political involvements and social authority, does the persistent allusion to fashionable women’s beauty in fact attest to the ideological limits imposed on their power and position?”

It did occasionally happen that some women could break into the restricted circles of the beau monde through marriage, but the experiences of the Gunning sisters is indicative of the limits of their acceptance. Both were acknowledged to be great beauties, but came from relatively humble backgrounds in Ireland, and their aristocratic husbands were not looked on kindly for having married the sisters instead of just taking them as their mistresses. Maria Gunning, in particular, appears to have attracted hostile comments, with Horace Walpole describing her as silly and “ignorant of the world.” She sadly died a few years after her marriage, “allegedly poisoned by her lead-based white make-up.” Her sister, Elizabeth, seems to have been luckier and though her first husband died early she inherited a large estate which she managed effectively. She re-married, again into the English aristocracy, and in contrast to Maria, who was said to be vain and socially vulgar, she was portrayed as “a sober peeress” who behaved in a manner befitting her position. “Her absorption was complete,” according to Greig.

Those who were already absorbed could easily lose their position if they broke certain unwritten rules. This was especially the case with women, it being often accepted that men, as long as they didn’t make it too obvious, were free to have affairs provided they had made a suitable marriage. Lady Sarah Bunbury spent twelve years in social exile because she had left her husband and run off with Lord William Gordon, the father of her unborn child. The Countess of Derby had to leave the country for several years after her affair with the Duke of Dorset came to light and her husband refused to divorce her. She did eventually return to London and acceptance back into polite society, largely because her husband had been making a fool of himself by publicly pursuing an actress. The Countess was luckier than Lady Susan Fox Strangeways who made the mistake of falling in love with William O’Brien, a leading actor on the London stage. Not only that, she married him. The ensuing scandal drove the pair from England and they moved to America. Some years later, they came back to London and Lady Susan tried to use her links to Lady Holland to be taken back into the circles of the beau monde. She never was given any recognition and Greig says that after “a number of years of frustrated metropolitan social exclusion, the O’Briens retreated to Kent and regretfully accepted their fate.” Greig also discusses the case of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, who got herself pregnant when she had an affair with Charles Grey. This raised problems of “the future of titles, the security of estates, and the perceived purity of the family tree.” She went abroad for two years to hide the birth of an illegitimate child, and thanks to her husband and her mother standing by her, and her own more-modest behaviour, she did eventually achieve at least some sort of acknowledgement, though Greig adds that she never regained “her former social prestige.”

It might be thought that impostors could easily insinuate their way into circles which were based so much on pretensions and fashion, but Greig offers little evidence to show that this was the case. The beau monde seems to have been fairly good at sensing who was genuine. I suppose if you have a group which is largely composed of titled people then it may be relatively easy to check on someone who mischievously claims to have a title, but hasn’t. And someone would have to be well-informed to understand the codes of conduct.  When impostors did come along they mostly preyed on those who allowed themselves to be overawed by claims to rank and relationships with members of the aristocracy. She provides details of several instances where gullible tradesmen were conned into offering goods and services when a fashionably dressed, plausible rogue dropped a few names and appeared to have all the right connections. Human nature never changes much in that respect.

There is much more in The Beau Monde that it would be possible to discuss, irrespective of one’s feelings about exclusive groups which depend on snobbishness and other forms of discrimination to protect their privileged positions. I’ve tended to ignore the political involvements of many members of the beau monde, both male and female, but they were obviously of importance at the time. The beau monde eventually lost much of its influence as the 19th century developed, moral and social attitudes changed, and more-democratic forms of government slowly came into force, though it could be argued that other groups have, in some ways, replaced it. Power still resides with people who come from certain backgrounds, attend certain schools, and know how to cultivate certain contacts. As for celebrity culture, well it has changed and I doubt that a newspaper could now print a list of “beauties” which took into account matters of grace, wit, and accomplishments. But I’ll say no more about that.

Hannah Greig has written a splendid account of the beau monde. It’s superbly documented, clearly written, and is never dull.