If you've seen “The Madness of King George,” you know that George III – who ruled England for six decades, starting in 1760 – suffered from periodic episodes of insanity. When the king didn't emerge from a final descent, his eldest son was appointed regent in 1811, though only crowned George IV after his father's death in 1820. Robert Morrison showcases that brief period – less than a decade – as an age of “remarkable diversity, upheaval, and elegance.”
For most people, life was anything but a 20-course dinner party or fancy costume ball. The entrenched elites brazenly used the law and military force to retain their power and extend their privileges, while the mass of exploited workers, servants and peasants led brutish lives of endless, relentless toil.
In London, one woman out of eight was a prostitute. Newly mechanized factories – truly dark Satanic mills – put children to work in 12-hour shifts. Men seethed to see their families starving, then drank gin and whored for temporary respite from despair.
Gradually, protest movements began to gain strength. During one peaceful assembly, government cavalry armed with axes charged the crowd, killing 11 and wounding more than 600. In a poem about the infamous Peterloo Massacre, Percy Bysshe Shelley proclaimed the downtrodden would soon “rise like Lions after slumber.” England was lucky to avoid a revolution.
Morrison continually suggests parallels between the Gilded Age and our own. When the Tory Morning Post praised the fat, lecherous Regent as the “Glory of the People” and an “Adonis in Loveliness,” journalist Leigh Hunt couldn't stomach the mendacity. Replying in the reformist newspaper, the Examiner, he declared that the Regent was “a violator of his word, a libertine over head and ears in debt and disgrace, a despiser of domestic ties, the companion of gamblers and demireps, a man who has just closed half a century without one single claim on the gratitude of his country or the respect of posterity.” Lashing back, the Regent's lickspittle ministers pressed libel charges, and Hunt ended up serving two years in prison.
Nonetheless, this admirably contrarian journalist counted the poets Shelley and John Keats among his supporters, as well as Lord Byron. Perhaps the world's first celebrity in our modern sense, Byron claimed to loathe being the target of rabid female sexuality. Among the great men of the 19th century, he modestly placed “himself third, Napoleon second, and Brummell first.”
That last name refers to the archetypal dandy Beau Brummel, who eschewed peacockian gaudiness for meticulous simplicity. As Morrison writes, “dandyism was ... about a different kind of aristocracy, a new, modern version that was founded in individual talent, vision, and mettle.” According to Byron, who would know better than anyone, Brummell dominated any room he entered by the sheer force of his personality.
“The Regency Years” teems with such charismatic personalities, from the Duke of Wellington, who defeated Napoleon, and Sir Walter Scott, who invented the historical novel, to the courtesan Harriette Wilson, who wasn't beautiful but merely irresistible.
Morrison probes the era's passion for gambling, horse–racing, boxing and opium. He thrillingly describes the Battle of Waterloo, tracks the War of 1812 in North America and offers a global tour d'horizon of Britain's colonies. But he doesn't neglect the arts and sciences, devoting several pages to the painters John Constable and J.M.W. Turner, the chemist Sir Humphry Davy, the visionary computer scientist Charles Babbage and the engineer who pioneered the steam locomotive, George Stephenson. Not least, he regularly turns for insight to the era's two most famous novels: Jane Austen's “Pride and Prejudice” and Mary Shelley's “Frankenstein.” Given such plenty, what more could one ask from a work of cultural history?
Michael Dirda is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for The Washington Post Book World.
"The Regency Years: During Which Jane Austen Writes, Napoleon Fights, Byron Makes Love, and Britain Becomes Modern" by Robert Morrison (Norton) 366 pages, $29.95