Nonfiction Book Reviews

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Deep Time by Gregory Benford

Bard, February 1999.
Hardcover, 225 pages.
ISBN: 0380975378.
Ordering information:

Deep Time
by Gregory Benford This unique science reference focuses on the communication of mankind beyond its current lifetime to future generations. Author Gregory Benford, a scientist and popular science fiction author, was part of a team of scientists brought together to design warnings about a nuclear waste storage facility in Carlsbad, New Mexico so that generations 10,000 years from now will be able to comprehend them. The perplexing problem involved the assumption that any language spoken 10,000 years from today would probably not be English or any other language currently spoken. Benford provides information and theory on this problem and others, including a message-filled CD carried on the recent Cassini mission to Saturn. Benford also provides thoughts and theory on mankind's future and how our attempts at communication may impact future generations.

Deep Time is an exciting and interesting book on the complex problem of how to communicate warnings to generations in the far distant future. Benford provides insightful analysis, history and projections on the subject with his first hand experience and knowledge.

An Elegant Madness: High Society in Regency England by Venetia Murray

Viking, March 1999.
Hardcover, 317 pages.
ISBN: 067088328X.
Ordering information:

An Elegant Madness: High Society in Regency England
by Venetia Murray Venetia Murray has given us a treasure of painstaking research in An Elegant Madness, High Society in Regency England. Armed with this well documented study conducted with thorough scholarship at the Royal Archives at Windsor Castle, the Chatsworth Archives and other important primary sources, the reader of Regency literature will now see the period not only from afar, but with new and powerful lenses summoned up by this delightful text. Those who find history boring or irrelevant are to be pitied, for if they miss reading this book they have missed great entertainment.

To read An Elegant Madness is to take a gossipy romp through Regency society and read with relish little snippets of the foibles of the upper classes in England at the time. The attitudes of the safely wealthy and happily well connected, are somewhat alarming to those with the egalitarian outlook of this last year of the twentieth century . Having just gone through a national disgrace and embarrassment from the actions of several of our politicians, readers on this side of the Atlantic will be shocked to learn that we must appear like awkward adolescents when compared to our British cousins and forefathers. We are brought up short when confronted by the complacent acceptance not only of sexual alliances but of the practicality among women as well as men. Lady Melbourne is credited with having told a young bride that her duty to her husband was to provide one male heir and that afterwards she would be free to amuse herself as she pleased. The bedroom to bedroom romps that Henry Fielding wrote about so boisterously were simply accepted behavior being reported by the novelist.

The fact that letter writing was the means by which everyone kept in touch in the days before the telephone and email has left a rich heritage of reporting for scholars such as Ms. Murray to use for research. She has gone through the correspondence of many observers who reported with uninhibited abandon and with no fear of consequences on all sorts of events and persons. The fact that the young heroine in Richardson's Clarissa clearly spent night and day scribbling frantic but naive missals to friends and relatives seems strange to us today, but apparently it was perfectly normal behavior for a young woman during the Regency period. How this young lady had time for anything else has eluded the imagination of literary scholars. However , Ms. Murray informs us that a "Mrs. Jordan was prolific, sometimes writing as many as twenty letters a day, and expected a commensurate number of answers."

Yet, immoral though they were, what fascinating and entertaining personalities one gets to meet in this irreverent, by their own admission, romp through the halls and bedrooms of stately homes! In the eighteenth century a great deal of attention was paid to one's lineage, but by Regency times style and taste could carry one far. Not only had wealth become more important, but taste and style could now elevate one to social levels undreamed of by one's forebears. The great Beau Brummell was the grandson of a valet and was never a man of wealth, yet he was welcome everywhere and being invited to watch him tie his cravat was a social coup.

One of the most enjoyable chapters in An Elegant Madness occurs in the chapter titled "An Impolite Society" in which Ms. Murray informs us that,

"It was also an age when men burst into tears on the slightest provocation and thought nothing of crying in public. They cried about love, money and even politics, long and loudly and without embarrassment. Walpole reported that Fox was in floods of tears on the floor of the House of Commons over a political quarrel with Burke, who was so upset himself that he started weeping as well: Creevey, writing in 1815 said that 'there was not a dry eye in the House', adding that one minister sobbed so much that he was unable to speak...."
Picturing this scene cannot fail to repay one with a good laugh. This is scholarship at its best, and will not only give the reader a knowledgeable backdrop for reading the literature of the period, it will entertain with lasting memories of the unstately behavior behind the stately walls of Regency England.

--Sarah Reaves White

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