Editor's Note: This book has been published in America as The Regency Years: During Which Jane Austen Writes, Napoleon Fights, Byron Makes Love, And Britain Becomes Modern (Norton, 2019).
All histories assert the significance of the period with which they deal, but the shorter that period is, the more interesting the assertion becomes. In this book Robert Morrison makes a claim for a bare nine years of British history -- the interregnum between 1811, when Prince George took over as Regent because of the mental incapacity of his father, and 1820, when he was finally crowned as King George IV. In the popular imagination the Regency is often seen through the lens provided by Thackeray's Vanity Fair. It is viewed as a period of dazzling spectacle and military adventure, high waists and Waterloo. But as Robert Morrison shows in this amazingly wide-ranging and consistently compelling history, it was always much more than that. In political terms it was a time of great discontent, both at home and abroad. During this period, Britain was not only at war with the Napoleonic empire but also in conflict with the fledgling United States. Luddism swept the countryside in the first half of the decade, radical agitation erupted in cities during the second. Waterloo, one of the nation's greatest episodes, was quickly followed by one of its most shameful, Peterloo. But in spite or perhaps even because of this continuing political volatility, the Regency was also a time of great industrial, cultural, and imperial development. It witnessed macadamization, the rise of dandyism, and a spectacular transformation of London; it saw the building of the first locomotive, the invention of the historical novel, and the founding of Singapore.
Morrison is masterful on the literature of the age -- as one would expect, given his background. But at no point does he become overly preoccupied by it. His meditations on Scott and Byron, Keats and Shelley, Coleridge and De Quincey, are scintillating but succinct. He gives equal if not greater attention to art, theater, and science, with winning accounts of the rise of Turner and Constable, of the development of the minor theaters, of Edmund Kean, of the Davy lamp, and of Charles Babbage's calculating machines. The first chapter proper, "Crime, Punishment, and the Pursuit of Freedom," proceeds from the assassination of the Prime Minister Spencer Perceval in 1812 into a wide-ranging discussion of body snatchers, the Bloody Code, the political imprisonment of Leigh Hunt, the prison reformer Elizabeth Fry, Luddism, Cobbett, and the trial of William Hone. The chapter on "Theaters of Entertainment" covers not only conventional drama but also boxing, horse racing, gastronomy, and gambling.
General histories of a period -- books, that is, which aim to provide "an equal, wide survey" -- always tend to stand or fall by the quality of the writing. It is most fortunate, then, that Robert Morrison has such a fine narrative style -- always vivid, but never less than judicious, a lively but never lax manner.
To the more contentious issues of the period -- those of race and class, politics and empire--Morrison brings a twenty-first century conscience mediated by historical understanding. Consistently aware of the ideological and material limits within which his historical agents were operating, he has no interest in berating them simply because their attitudes differed from ours. Yet he never tries to defend the indefensible either. While he salutes William Cobbett as a great champion of the English working class, he also finds him a "jaw-breakingly crude bigot" (215) regarding the plight of West Indian slaves. Though he devotes an entire chapter to "Sexual Pastimes, Pleasures and Perversities," he is neither prurient nor puritanical about the mores of the past. In his colorful but also conscientious account of same-sex love in the Regency, he surveys "Monk" Lewis and William Beckford, Anne Lister and S. T. Coleridge, and ends with Jeremy Bentham, who had long considered homosexuality an "imaginary crime" (161). Morrison's even-handedness, his ability to bring the same kind of eager, open intelligence to every topic under his purview, is only one of the many qualities that make this history illuminating.
To readers with no prior knowledge of the Regency, this book must surely be revelatory. But how will it affect readers who, like the present reviewer, might already know something about the period? Speaking from my own experience, all I can say is that I found Morrison's book riveting even when its topics were familiar. This is partly a function of his literary manner. Besides knowing how to tell a good story, Morrison also knows very well how to string good stories together; he is a master, in other words, of the great Romantic art of association -- of connecting distant but related subjects, of accumulating meaning through form. In the last section of his chapter on "Expanding Empire and Waging War," Morrison moves from the eruption of Tambora to Thomas Moore's Lalla Rookh, and then on to Brighton Pavilion and opium. And his discussion of the latter includes a harrowing account of Fanny Burney's operation for breast cancer -- a procedure that had (of course) been undertaken without a proper anaesthetic:
Finally the digging and scraping stopped. This time it was over. Burney had lost consciousness at least twice and was lifted to her bed "totally annihilated." The operation had lasted twenty minutes, including the treatment and the dressing. She had borne it all with immense courage, but it was months before she could even "think of it with impunity." (204)
And from here, of course, it is but a short step to De Quincey and Confessions of an English Opium-Eater. But no sooner do we light on this subject, which must be a favourite of Morrison's, than we find ourselves on the wing again, investigating the new colony of New South Wales, Australia -- and the story of Lachland Macquarie and Sydney. Then, in a manner that is concise without being cursory, Morrison treats two difficult subjects: transatlantic slavery and the domestic bondage decried by William Cobbett.
The chapter on "Expanding Empire" closes with a cluster of linked topics: the spate of Arctic expeditions that took place at the end of the decade, Keats viewing a panorama of Spitzbergen in Leicester Square in 1818, and the publication that year of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, which begins with Robert Walton dreaming of being the first man to discover the North West Passage. Morrison's great talent for transitions--his considerable associative tact--ensures that instead of feeling desultory or distracted, his narrative draws us ever more deeply into the complex imaginary of the period.
Such are the pleasures to be had from familiar elements suggestively recombined. But Morrison also brings some new, or at least oft-neglected, contexts to bear upon the old. Since an English, Scottish, Welsh or Irish writer, would have struggled, I think, to see this period of British history so steadily and so whole, one is sometimes reminded that the author is Canadian. Morrison's account of Waterloo is one of the most compelling I have read. But it is immediately followed by a war story that is if, anything, even more entertaining and enlightening -- a brief history of the US-British War of 1812. To strike the one against the other, as Morrison has done, is to spark many insights. Waterloo was a traditional grand battle, perhaps the last of its kind, a battle that determined the fate of empires. But it was also, as the Duke of Wellington was himself forced to admit, "the nearest run thing you ever saw in your life" (178). The War of 1812 and its aftermath was nothing but a series of skirmishes: an incoherent, indecisive conflict; yet while soon forgotten in its own terms, "nevertheless forged," writes Morrision, "the future of an entire continent" (187). It was during one of the skimishes of this war that Francis Scott Key wrote "The Star Spangled Banner," and in the midst of another that an English expeditionary force ventured down from Canada to set fire to the U.S. Capitol -- then under construction -- on the evening of August 24, 1814. All but forgotten by most, this event has just been recalled to the public mind by the Trump Insurrection of January 6, 2021, for in the history of the United States, this is only the second time that its citadel of liberty has been stormed.
Morrison launches his narrative by inviting us to consider how the future George IV might have influenced his times: what the Regency owed to the Regent. Notwithstanding his "undisputed failures," which led many of his subjects to view him with growing contempt, Morrison argues that
in matters of taste and style the Regent [...] left a profound impact on his era, for in his love of both elegance and excess, violence and restraint, learning and lasciviousness, the low-brow and the high-minded, he embodied many of the extremes that have come down to define his Regency, not only within court circles, but also much further down the social hierarchies. (2)
In his epilogue, Morrison re-affirms this point:
More than any other member of the royal family either before or since, [the Regent] believed that novelists, poets, singers, historians, actors, painters, musicians, scientists, architects, and engineers, mattered, and during his Regency his well-known enthusiasm for the arts and the sciences helped to energize the most extraordinary outpouring of creativity in British history. Some of it he sponsored directly. Some of it came about as a result of the huge social upheaveals of the Napoleonic wars, which encouraged many of the finest minds of the age to perceive and represent the world in highly original ways. (288)
Morrison spends little time worrying about how one might prove such a thesis--how the influence of this pioneering royal influencer could reasonably be measured. But he does make good on the claims of the period. Seen from a proper perspective, and through the eyes of a judicious observer like Morrison, the Regency does indeed emerge as a truly astonishing time.
Gregory Dart is Professor of English at University College London.