The Beau Monde: Fashionable Society in Georgian London
In celebration of our current exhibition Georgians Revealed: Life, Style and the Making of Modern Britain, today’s guest blog comes from Dr Hannah Greig, author of The Beau Monde: Fashionable Society in Georgian London. Here she talks about her experience using the Library and being banished to the ‘dirty books desk’. Intrigued? Read on!
Hear Hannah in conversation with Patrick Grant (creative director of Norton & Sons and Etautz) at the event Buying Luxury, Acquiring Style: Georgian Menswear on Monday, 2 December from 18.30 – 20.00. Click here for more info and to book tickets.
British Library is, of course, a place where books are written as well as read,
and for many writers and academics it is our equivalent to a city office. We
clock in when the doors open and meet friends and colleagues when dropping off
our bags in the cloakroom. It is a place for water-cooler gossip, working
lunches and long days of intellectual labour.
I registered for my first Reader Pass over a decade ago as a graduate student. While studying for my MA, I found myself using by accident what is known colloquially among the Readers as the ‘dirty books desk’: the supervised table in the Rare Books & Music Reading Room to which you are consigned when consulting erotic or pornographic material.
British Library St Pancras Reading Rooms
At the time, I was investigating satirical and moralizing representations of fashionable life in eighteenth-century London. As this took place in the dark days before digitization and key word searching, I had been methodically working my way through some of the eighteenth century’s most famous periodicals, including The Tatler, The Spectator, The World and The Connoisseur.
It was a hunt for The Rambler, a periodical of moral and political essays edited by Samuel Johnson, which banished me to the ‘dirty books’ corner. By mistake, I had ordered from the catalogue The Ramblers Magazine; or the Annals of Gallantry, Glee, Pleasure and the Bon Ton (1783) that dealt with very different topics indeed. Never one to waste a work opportunity, I transcribed a lewd poem comparing an erect penis to a flowering geranium (a text that has since been used amongst my teaching materials), before blushingly returning the journal and revisiting the catalogue to dig out Johnson’s more staid publication.
those early eye-opening research excursions, the manuscripts and rare books
collection formed the core of my doctoral research, and have proved invaluable
to my recent book The Beau Monde:
Fashionable Society in Georgian London (Oxford University Press, 2013).
To be fashionable in Georgian London meant more than simply being well-dressed. It denoted membership of a new type of society - the beau monde, a world where status was no longer determined by coronets and countryseats alone but by the nebulous qualification of ‘fashion’.
This fast-living, ostentatious realm was a popular topic for the period’s caricaturists. Cartoons lambasted the beau monde’s love of new and expensive goods, their delight in public display, their love of parties and pleasure, their gambling, and their reputation for sexual indiscretion and extra-marital affairs. In many ways, it is through such satires and scandals that Georgian high society has come to be defined.
My book, however, tries to recover the lives behind the stereotypes, and find out more about what fashionable life meant to those reputedly within the beau monde’s exclusive circle.
Tom and Jerry at the Exhibition of Pictures at the Royal Aacademy © The British Library Board. On display at Georgians Revealed: Life, Style and the Making of Modern Britain.
I have relied heavily on the British Library’s collections to decode the rules of eighteenth-century fashion. The mass of contemporary letters and diaries that form the family archives kept by the manuscripts department are an especially rich resource. It is impossible not to be moved by seeing eighteenth-century ink on paper and imagining the hand that wrote it and the eyes that first read it. Such personal letters reveal firsthand what life was like in London’s fast lane.
I have spent years in the Manuscripts Reading Room with these fashionable figures for company. My other favourite Library spots are the far corner of Rare Books & Music (a place to find my fellow historians) and the quiet seats in Humanities 2 (where I retreat when I need to hit a deadline).
When I was a PhD student, I made good use of the cheap coffee machine in the Cotton Room on the third floor. Now I’m more likely to be found in the lower ground floor café trying to resist the cake.
Dr Hannah Greig is a lecturer in history at the University of York. She also works as a historical adviser to film, theatre and television, with credits including The Duchess film and a forthcoming BBC mini-series Death Comes to Pemberley. She will be talking about eighteenth-century men’s fashion with designer Patrick Grant at the British Library event Buying Luxury, Acquiring Style: Georgian Menswear on Monday, 2 December from 18.30 – 20.00. Click here for more info and to book tickets.