Though this book goes out as "a history of the Regency," it bears few of history's hallmarks. It is more impressionistic than analytical, and "Impressions of" might have made a better title than "History of." When the author does probe beneath the action, her brief deductions have to be taken on trust. For instance, the narcissism of the Regency dandies is said to be symptomatic of "society in the throes of self-definition." No more. A tiresome old history would have gone on and on explaining that brief generalization.
The pleasures of the book are such as to appeal to the student or general reader: a light, sympathetic touch with people; a succession of episodic chapters that put little or no burden on the memory; a selection of illustrative stories from contemporary sources. Anyone wanting a lively, decorative introduction to the Regency could not do better than "Our Tempestuous Day."
Carolly Erickson tells us that the idea of the book came to her when she was rereading Shelley's famous lines on the state of the nation in 1819. "An old, mad, blind, despised, and dying King"; princes, his sons, who are the "dregs" of their race; a government that clings "leechlike" to the fainting country; a starved, workless people; a "liberticide" army; a "Christless" religion. Yet all these horrors are "graves from which a glorious Phantom may/ Burst, to illumine our tempestuous day."
Erickson was struck, she writes, by the conflict between Shelley's indictment of a violent, diseased society and the accepted picture of Regency England as stylish and dashing, epitomized by the Prince Regent himself. She aims to present this fissured decade (1810-1820) as a series of "transformation scenes" -- "a kaleidoscopic sequence of views which, taken as a whole, circumscribe an age."
The first shake of the kaleidoscope brings up the "mad" King George III at his Golden Jubilee in 1810. Like every writer since 1972, when two new books were published on the life of George III, Erickson implicates porphyria, the mysterious royal disease, in the transformation of George from a raving tyrant to a pathetic patriarch.
There follows a panorama of the British Isles through the eyes of a visiting American businessman, Louis Simond. Erickson is at her best in making this kind of selection. The transformation scenes pass in quick succession, all traditional and familiar but nonetheless skillfully stage-managed: the Luddites; the climbing boys (chimney sweeps); Lord Byron and Caroline Lamb; coarse Caroline, princess of Wales; overweight Princess Charlotte; the assassinated prime minister Perceval; the battle of Waterloo; Napoleon on Bellerophon; John Bull in Paris; riots in the Strand; the ever "steadying" influence of Wellington. Among this glittering or bloodstained throng, a pair of plebeian "Johns" are more interesting than the overexposed "Carolines" -- little John Hawley, aged 6, killed in a chimney, and Irish John Cashman, a 28-year-old sailor hanged for a break-in.
And what of Shelley's "glorious Phantom" that was to arise from all these sad graves? Erickson seems to locate its spirit among the Evangelicals, especially Hannah More and Bishop Wilberforce. How surprised Shelley would have been. Surely he was thinking of some more glamorous spirit, perhaps his own Prometheus. Nevertheless "Holy Hannah" produces the funniest story in the book. A "sharp little girl," presumably from the West Country where Hannah began her mission, was being questioned by Hannah on the Bible. "Who was Abraham?" A pause. Then, "I think he was an Exeter man!"