Capt Gronow and Sir Harry Smith Write their Memoirs

Captain Gronow:
His Reminiscences of Regency and Victorian Life, 1810-60
By Christopher Hibbit

 

This is a very difficult book to review as I liked it a lot, but I still have a number of reservations about it – mostly about its editing.

First, let me tell you about Captain Gronow – he was one of life’s observers, and might have slipped through history with only the vaguest of mentions in a few diaries had he not needed to resort to his pen in the 1860′s in order to support himself. He wrote four books which were stacked to the gunnels with anecodotes, slanderous stories and all sorts of gossipy snippets. These were snapped up by his Victorian audience who were keen to read about the sinful vagaries of that bygone era, the Regency.

Christopher Hibbert has done a pretty good job in collecting together some of the better stories and putting them into this one volume. He has also created some sense to the mass of stories by organising them into chapters. These chapters include subject headings like “The Prince Regent, His Family and Friends” and “Rakes, Dandies and Men about Town”. So it makes it an easy volume to browse for those of you reading this for fun.

There are a few things with this book that I do find difficult. The first is that Hibbert never questions the veracity of what Gronow says. There are several apocryphal stories in here which Gronow tells (the one of Brummell’s aunt being milkmaid is one which springs instantly to mind) – which I feel, as the editor, Hibbert should have at least footnoted. Gronow was writing up to 50 years after events, he certainly could not have recalled all the detail and I think that makes it vitally important that the editor check the facts. Indeed, it is probable that Gronow lifted this story straight out of the pages of Brummell’s first biographer – Captain Jesse – anyway.

Secondly – Hibbert should have checked the dates. Gronow mixes up the dates of the battles of Nive and Nivelle. An easy thing to check, and it is not like Hibbert doesn’t know his Peninsular War detail.

Thirdly – while most of Hibbert’s footnoted descriptions of Regency People are very good and succinct – he does make at least one mistake mixing up Frances, Lady Jersey with her daughter in law, Sarah, Lady Jersey.

I certainly do feel that of all the edited volumes of Gronow’s books to come out so far, Hibbert’s is definitely the best. However, unless you have a plethora of Regency Books yourself and understand the times well it wouldn’t be nearly as much fun reading Gronow without a editor to explain some of the events and people Gronow is gossiping about.

Also worth reading: Regency Recollections: Captain Gronow’s Guide to Life in London and Paris

Publisher: Trafalgar Square
ISBN: 1856260135


The Autobiography of Sir Harry Smith 1787-1819

The Autobiography of Harry Smith was written, by his own admission in the same way he lived his life – at a gallop. It is wonderful that they have republished this book because it was first released around the turn of 1900 and so was desparately difficult to get a hold of.

This book is the first, and best volume, of the two that were published posthumously. They cover his military life as an officer in the 95th Regiment from his first disastorous expedition to South America when he was still a teenager through his years campaigning on the Peninsular War (1808-1814), Waterloo and the occupation of France.

His writing style, while stilted to modern ears, does not take long to learn to enjoy and he packs his book with hundreds of anecdotes of various army characters and snippets of life. He is just so good humoured and his stories so energetic without malice that you cannot help but enjoy him.

I know Harry Smith best for his highly romantic and impetuous marriage to a young Spanish girl, following the seige of Badajoz in 1812. Their life together, and her rapid adjustment to the harsh realities of campaigning were fascinating enough to be the subject of at least one historical novel, Georgette Heyer’s book “The Spanish Bride” – but I think I liked reading the original story in Harry and Juana’s word’s better.

There are other truly wonderful biographies from officers of the 95th (which was later called ‘The Rifle Brigade’) in the Peninsular War also available from Amazon, including George Simmon’s, A British Rifleman and John Kincaid’s, Adventures in the Rifle Brigade. But Harry Smith is a gem.

Publisher: Constable
ISBN: 0094797404

Anne Woodley is an Amazon top 500 reviewer as well as the patroness of Janeites, the Internet discussion, as well as mistress of the Regency Ring. Her excellent page, The Regency Collection is a treasure trove of information.

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