One wonders what else can be added to a rich part of the Regency story that is already well developed. However, Robert Morrison manages to make an entertaining book full of anecdotes and scenarios of the rich and famous, the poor and the exploited. Most of his main sources are literary sources: Byron, Shelley, Carlyle, Coleridge, Cobbett, Scott and Wordsworth are duly considered, but so are his wives, including Jane Austen, Fanny Burney, Mary Shelley and Maria Edgeworth. He also deepens lesser known mortals like Pierce Egan, who remembers life in London, with highlights of excessive gambling, the use of flash language, mere boxing and general libertinism.
Morrison's reading range is impressive, covering crime and punishment, theater, sex, war and empire, as well as the changing landscape of the industrial revolution. The high points of the era, which were seen in the great engineering achievements, are contrasted with the unrest of the unemployed, who are in deep poverty with the introduction of new machines and the corn laws. The rioting of the injured masses at demonstrations threatened the authority, the reaction of which was to put it down in the 1819 Peterloo massacre.
The Regency races through a litany of thieves, prostitutes, potions, brothels, gin shops and pickpockets and is robbed of its refinery. Grave robbers or "resurrection men" replied to the lack of corpses needed for preparation in the teaching hospitals in London. A highlight is Joseph's Naples diary, in which he describes how he and the & # 39; Borough Boys & # 39; from Southwark and what kind of corpses he got. In the series & # 39; Went to Bunhill & # 39; 6, 1 of them were named Mary Rolph, 46 years old. The middle class and the elite are also affected – the Prince Regent, courtesan Harriette Wilson, lesbians Anne Lister and the ladies of Llangollen and the pederast William Beckford.
Morrison is best at communicating depth and focusing on a specific person or event, as described in his description of the only assassination of a British prime minister. In October 1809, Protestant Tory Spencer Perceval, father of 12, was shot and killed by an angry John Bellingham, who believed he had been neglected by the government – they hadn't saved him when he ended up in a Russian prison after a failed deal dare. Both Byron and William Cobbett witnessed his execution. The latter said the crowd's support for Bellingham showed "the deep discontent they had with the terrible laws that had been passed … to cut their freedoms." Today's legal system, known as "The Bloody Code", contained over 200 death-penalty offenses. Percy Shelley was supposed to condemn it and believed: "There is probably no other country in the world where so many and diverse human acts can be punished with the death penalty as in England."
Many anecdotes by important personalities are much shorter than those of prison reformer Elizabeth Fry; After visiting female prisoners in Newgate in 1813, she wrote: "The dirt, the closeness of the rooms, the cruel manners and the expressions of the women to each other and the abandoned malice, which is all tailor-made, are pretty indescribable."
For entertainment, Morrison draws his poll with sketches of the day's most popular actors. Despite her age, Dorothy Jordan was still the queen of comedy after giving birth to ten illegitimate children to the Duke of Clarence. Sarah Siddons retired on the evening of June 29, 1812 with sensationally loud applause. When John Kemble played Coriolanus, Fanny Burney was amazed: "I have never seen a really nobler performance." Jane Austen equally adored Edmund Keans Shylock and drooled: "I can not imagine a better spectacle of the events in this well-written introduction to reign treated.
The Regency Revolution: Jane Austen, Napoleon, Lord Byron and the Emergence of the Modern World
Atlantic 350pp £ 20
Julie Peakman is the author of Licentious Worlds: Sex and Exploitation in Global Realms (Response, 2019).