In his opening chapter Morrison dramatically recounts the 1812 assassination — pistol shot at point-blank range — of the Tory Prime Minister Spencer Perceval, an act that was jubilantly celebrated by a crowd of “from fifty to a hundred thousand persons” who gathered in the hours just after the murder. Nowadays, the phrase “the Regency”calls to mind BBC images of spotlessly dressed dandies, lascivious rakes and Elizabeth Bennet look-alikes chatting and flirting at the Brighton Pavilion. Yet for most people back then, 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, 1 woman out of 8 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. A certain Lady Sutherland sucked every possible penny from her estates in Scotland, insisting that her tenants only appeared to be half-starved. “Scotch people,” she explained, “do not fatten like the larger breed of animals.”
Gradually, protest movements began to gain strength, ranging from the vigilante machinery-busting Luddites to Christian evangelicals preaching social justice. During one peaceful outdoor assembly, government cavalry armed with axes charged through the crowd, killing 11 people and wounding more than 600. In a poem about this event — the infamous Peterloo Massacre — Percy Bysshe Shelley proclaimed that the downtrodden would soon “rise like Lions after slumber.” England was lucky to avoid a revolution.
Morrison continually suggests parallels between the Regency’s 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 roundly declared that the Regent was actually “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 Keats and Shelley among his supporters, as well as Lord Byron, who was, in the memorable phrase of the besotted Lady Caroline Lamb, “mad, bad, and dangerous to know.” Perhaps the world’s first celebrity in our modern sense, Byron claimed to loathe being the target of rabid female sexuality: “I have been more ravished myself than anybody since the Trojan War.” 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: “If John Bull turns round to look after you, you are not well dressed.” Brummell, significantly, didn’t come from a privileged background. As Morrison writes, “dandyism was not about being born into the right family. It 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.
In the same way, the magnetic Edmund Kean dominated the stage. “Other actors projected control,” writes Morrison, “Kean projected danger” — and even irrationality. “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. Her memoirs open with a delicious coyness: “I shall not say why and how I became, at the age of fifteen, the mistress of the Earl of Craven.” When she tried to extort hush money to leave Wellington out of her tell-all reminiscences, he reportedly replied: “Publish and be damned.” The Iron Duke, she consequently informed the world, was bad in bed, possessing no merit for “ladies’ uses.”
In other sections of “The Regency Years” Morrison probes the era’s passion for gambling, horse-racing, boxing and opium (his previous book was an excellent biography of Thomas De Quincey). 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 in Canada, India and Australia. 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 reviews books each Thursday in Style.
During Which Jane Austen Writes, Napoleon Fights, Byron Makes Love, and Britain Becomes Modern