Jane Austen Writes, Napoleon Fights and Britain Becomes Modern

During Which Jane Austen Writes, Napoleon Fights, Byron Makes Love and Britain Becomes Modern
By Robert Morrison

Nine years ago, the Canadian historian Robert Morrison published a scholarly and engrossing life of England’s second most famous opium eater, Thomas De Quincey. (Coleridge’s opium-inspired reverie about Kubla Khan earns him the crown.)

Now Morrison is back with a spirited and wide-ranging account of life in — and out of — Regency England. These were the years that saw an exhausted, impoverished Britain at war both internally (workers’ riots, Highland clearances, troubles in Ireland) and externally, thanks to many ruinous years of battling against Napoleon and almost three years of war against the United States.

No wonder that in 1812, after being reluctantly enlightened about the state of the country (the Prince Regent must have wished he’d never asked), the future George IV was “very nearly in convulsions.” At that point, with his father having been declared insane, he had only been in charge for a year.

While Morrison fails to rescue the image of England’s ruler as the portly, self-indulgent lecher waggishly created by the poets and cartoonists of Regency times, he does well to remind readers how much George and his pet architect, John Nash, contributed to transforming London into an elegant and supremely modern metropolis.

West of Nash’s obsequiously named Regent Street, London society made and obeyed the rules of a mini-Versailles. Even the Duke of Wellington, the hero of Waterloo, took his dismissal from an evening at a smart social club like a man. (The soldier duke’s crime: wearing black trousers to one fashionable venue’s etiquette-conscious evening instead of the mandatory knee breeches.)

While Morrison’s tales of high society lack the spice of novelty — few periods of English social history have been more thoroughly trawled — he does a splendid job of exposing the grubby underbelly of Georgian life. East of Regent Street were the crowded rookeries of St Giles. Criminals swapped tips at the infamous Rats’ Castle pub, jawing together in the new “flash” language to which today’s street slang owes “pig” for a police officer and “pigeon” for a victim.

Punishment was harsh. London’s jails (28 of them in 1816, by one journalist’s count) were augmented by the ships called “hulks,” from which Dickens’s convict Magwitch fled in “Great Expectations.” Writing about Fagin’s light-fingered protégés in “Oliver Twist,” Dickens must have scoured old news articles about the 6,000 pick-pocketing children whose work for gangland bosses carried a death penalty as late as 1808.

Sex in Regency times offers Morrison a field day in salacious details. The reader is not stinted. The Eleusinian Institution offered a visiting lady the chance to enjoy “one or a dozen men as she pleases.” A raid on a brothel for working-class men unveiled a “celebration room” where clients could frolic with Miss Selina, Sally Fox and even “the Duchess of Devonshire.” With a conscious echo of contemporary scandals, Morrison describes how one highborn bishop fled to France (since sodomy was still a hanging offense) after being discovered in the back parlor of a pub during “the actual commission of that horrid and unnatural crime.”

“The Regency Years” can be enjoyed without accepting all of Morrison’s theories. It’s unlikely that Mary Shelley intended Victor Frankenstein’s creature to be interpreted as his creator’s sex toy. It’s startling to read that Byron “may or may not” have made love to his half sister and irritating to be informed that Charles Babbage, not Ada Lovelace, saw his unbuilt Analytical Engine as “the first modern digital computer.”

Although elegant, entertaining and frequently surprising, “The Regency Years” nevertheless failed to convince this reader that 19th-century England’s post-Waterloo emergence as the world’s most powerful nation had much to do with its capricious and pleasure-loving ruler. Having a handsome street and a splendid park named in the regent’s honor seems just about right for George’s epitaph.

Miranda Seymour’s most recent book is “In Byron’s Wake: The Turbulent Lives of Lord Byron’s Wife and Daughter: Annabella Milbanke and Ada Lovelace.”

During Which Jane Austen Writes, Napoleon Fights, Byron Makes Love and Britain Becomes Modern
By Robert Morrison
Illustrated. 366 pp. W.W. Norton & Company. $29.95.

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