Tuesday, 14 August 2007

T.H. White: The Age of Scandal (1950)

Published: Penguin, 2000

T.H. White is obviously best known for his Arthur stories, starting with The Sword in the Stone, and after that, for his book on falconry, The Goshawk. So a guess as to which period he would choose as the subject for a series of essays on history would probably be medieval. Instead, The Age of Scandal is about England in the second half of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth, roughly the reigns of George III and George IV. The book chronicles the scandals of the age (with a chapter on the Marquis de Sade taking it across the Channel), and is really a minimal narrative thread connecting excerpts from contemporary letters and diaries.

That White had views which now seem a little eccentric is evident from the very first sentence: "Well, we have lived to see the end of civilization in England." (Those who read the table of contents before this statement would have realised his eccentricity from the inclusion of an essay entitled Ears.) He believed that the essence of civilisation in England was the country house aristocratic culture that was effectively destroyed by changes in the property laws during the first half of the twentieth century - something which may have made this start seem less outrageous to a committed Tory at the end of Labour's first post-war government. It does seem that the rest of the book is devoted to prove something quite different: that there was nothing civilised about the late eighteenth century either.

On the other hand, he may well not have intended this to be taken seriously. Among his other suggestions that must surely be tongue in cheek is the suggestion that the reason that the French revolution failed to spread to England was that the English have a sense of humour. Later, White quotes an English description of King Christian VII of Denmark, which ends, "That is all that decency permits to be said, the rest must be imagined." Then, linking this to an account by a French writer who is much less discrete, he adds, "It need not be imagined, however, by people who understand French."

There are lots of interesting, amusing and enjoyable quoted documents in The Age of Scandal. It is not the place to look for in depth analysis, or indeed for anything (the lack of an index makes it almost useless for reference). White also expects a knowledge of the events of the period; people and events are referred to without explanation or further mention. But if you have a passing familiarity with the personalities, reading the highlights and raciest sections of contemporary accounts of them is fascinating. The bittiness which comes from being a collection of essays is something of a problem, with events referred to without being described elsewhere when in a more unified narrative they surely would be (scandals involving the sons of George III are a case in point; despite an essay on Royal Gossip, there are other scandals mentioned elsewhere that do not appear in that section at all). But otherwise this is a most entertaining read.

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