T. H. White has got hold of some excellent gossip and now he wants to dish.
All of these fantastic anecdotes were more than a century old when he wrote this book and closer by now to two, but that in no way diminishes the desire to pass them on. If anything, it lends an urgency to the enterprise: White wants everyone to know that the glitterati of the late 18th century were anything but dull, especially compared to the Romantics, whose unjust reputation for being more interesting than their predecessors comes from straitening their laces considerably and then loosening them a bit while making a big fuss about how daring they were, to hear White tell it.
Before he can get down to the serious business of gossip, he puts forward a bit of a thesis, namely, that important people should not be bothered with the washing-up, and that "the peak of British culture was reached in the latter years of George III: that the rot began to set in with the 'Romantics': that the apparent prosperity of Victoria's reign was autumnal, not vernal: and that now we are done for." If he is not at least half-jocular in his reactionary grumpery, at least he sandwiches it between two jokes and then swiftly moves on to the good stuff.
The British peerage at this time numbered slightly less than the population of my high school, except that these people had fantastic quantities of wealth, leisure, and actual power to wield (when some of them could be bothered to get out of bed). It should be unsurprising that their cliques, pranks, rivalries, etc., played out on a fabulous scale. Furthermore, they wrote and were written about extensively, leaving White the pleasing task of stringing together juicy anecdotes with scene-setting period detail and his own observations, by turns wry, indulgent, scathing and amused. It is a funny and readable book (although it is more readable if you read French, which it sometimes seems like every other person is speaking, all of it quite untranslated; and to think they told me in high school that Spanish would be more practical!).
I picked up this book with an eye towards T. H. White himself, with the subject matter a pleasing bonus, so I noted with interest what he had to say on the subjects of homosexuality and sado-masochism [his term]. The former is nearly always mentioned in the form of a syllogism: incest is to the Age of Scandal as homosexuality is to the twentieth century (once he additionally specifies the interwar period), these being the vices that disproportionately occupied their respective eras. Here he perhaps has a point, but it still seems to me a bit like a counter-accusation of wolf-crying.
With regards to the latter, he engages the subject a bit more directly: and after all, who could try to depict this era without mentioning floggings (illustrated with a period engraving, naturally) or the Marquis de Sade (who gets his own chapter, tucked at the very end, right after the one devoted to the peculiar fad for ears, the violent removal thereof, and the sad story of Princess Caroline Matilda, who was married off to the syphilitic flagellant masturbation-addict King of Denmark, had him put away in tandem with their mutual physician and her lover, and was outmaneuvered in turn by her mother-in-law and barely made it back to England intact). His take on de Sade is entertaining–he calls him "a timid and inefficient sadist" and complains that his books are not only "ridiculous nonsense" but "unnatural" for jumbling together all sorts of "perversions" that White claims are "indisputabl[y]" incompatible. Although he goes too far in the other direction (sadists are never Lesbians? Really?), I enjoy his bland refusal to be shocked as de Sade clearly wants so badly to be shocking, and his epitaph: "[De Sade]'s name, far from being forgotten, gave a substantive, adjective and adverb to every civilised language."