Those who know the British Regency mostly from Georgette Heyer novels of heaving bosoms and Beau Brummel-ish heroes, or from Jane Austen’s witty satires on British manners, may be surprised to discover that the real Regency decade (1811 to 1820) was a period of intense political and social unrest, both nationally and internationally; of cavalier (in both senses) cruelty and contempt; of crushing taxes, tariffs and starvation versus extravagance; and of addiction (often prescribed and socially consumed), organized crime and pornography. It was also the setting for a golden age of London theater and art; for a fanatic explosion in sports both elegant and excruciatingly bloody; for literal Dickensian child poverty and criminal exploitation; and eventually for (almost redemptory) scientific and technical innovation.
Morrison’s well annotated and engagingly anecdotal book is a worthy romp through one of the most licentious, libertarian and obviously paradoxical decades in British history. Warfare, which was almost continual from Napoleon to New Orleans, required immense funding, while the Irish and other colonials were alternately taxed and denied relief. It was also a great era of expansion in India and the Middle East, which Lord Elgin saw as artistic reclamation and Lord Byron considered blatant looting.
Morrison reminds us that what literature classes refer to as the Romantic poets were also prominent social revolutionaries, writing against obvious profiteering Parliament laws and in favor of universal rights, suffrage and prison reform. It didn’t come cheap, either. Shelley was the near-victim of an attempted assassination, Byron lost his life fighting for Greek independence from Turkey, and newspaper publisher Leigh Hunt spent two years in jail for his scathing criticisms of the Prince Regent, which probably lead to his early death.
Morrison also offers a timely debunking of current misnomers. “Luddites” were not anti-tech—only anti the machines that stole their jobs during the industrial revolution. And despite the way Victorian has come to mean “prudish,” the 19th-century Brits (including those from the Regency era) endorsed sadomasochistic floggings at boys’ schools, incest (which was more socially acceptable than masturbation) and celebrity affairs. The Regent himself, and his brother and successor William IV, were famously dissolute and shared an almost hereditary weakness for actresses. William had at least 10 illegitimate children, most of whom survived with titles and a few honors, but of course, they could not inherit the throne. And thus, the brothers’ niece Victoria ushered in Britain’s next era.