Monday, July 15, 2013

Donna T. Andrew's "Aristocratic Vice"

Donna T. Andrew is professor emerita of history at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Aristocratic Vice: The Attack on Duelling, Suicide, Adultery, and Gambling in Eighteenth-Century England, and reported the following:
My book, Aristocratic Vice: The Attack on Duelling, Suicide, Adultery and Gambling in Eighteenth Century England examines some of the constituent elements of what was called “the code of honour,” i.e. that set of practices that distinguished the upper class from the rest. Members of this small circle could act in ways often punished in others, and could expect to suffer no penalties. When an upper-class man killed his opponent in a duel, he could expect to be acquitted of murder; when he killed himself, he could be sure to escape the verdict of felo de se, or self-murder, which entailed humiliating and public burial at crossroads. My argument is that, beginning in the eighteenth century, a very slow and stop-and-start series of campaigns, often promoted by the proliferating newspaper press, both called attention to these unpunished sins and crimes, bemoaned their deleterious effects on the fairness and even-handedness of the Law, and convinced a growing body of such readers, often referred to as “the middle”, that they were better than their betters, more virtuous in their obedience to the Law than the rest. And yet, it was equally clear that the world of aristocratic vice exercised a strong allure, and that this was one of its pernicious consequences. Which brings us to the sad tale of the life and death of George Hesse, which takes center stage on page 99 of my book.

Hesse, a prosperous and well-liked member of London’s mercantile elite, having taken too-active a part in the gambling circles surrounding the Prince of Wales, killed himself, unable to pay his “debts of honour.” When the inquest jury found his death the result of lunacy, i.e. exculpating his act from criminal responsibility, the press entered the fray. While most newspapers agreed that Hesse had had “very liberal and fine feelings” and that he would be missed and pitied both by those who had known him, and those who hadn’t, many others noted that it was not lunacy as such, but his “desire to live with and like the Great that led to his downfall.” Sympathy for the man did not excuse condemnation for his crime, and over the course of the century, spurred both by such reports and by letters to the editor from upset and indignant readers, condemnations of aristocratic vice became more pointed and frequent.
Learn more about Aristocratic Vice at the Yale University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue